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Esther Howland, Lupercus and the Feast of St Valentine

Terry Bell was the founding principal of the primary division of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Mazimbiu, Tanzania.

February 14 has a chequered history - the problem is that nobody is sure who Valentine was or even if a single martyr of that name existed.

In these straitened economic times, restaurants, florists and chocolatiers, facing the additional pain of load shedding, will be hoping that Friday — Valentine’s Day — will provide a boost to their often flagging bottom lines. And for this, business has neither a saint, a pope nor the Roman Catholic Church to thank for a day with a very chequered history.

Thanks has to go to Esther Howland, an entrepreneurial artist and printer from Massachusetts in the United States. In 1848, aged 20, she launched what became a major Valentine Day card business that put the day solidly onto the calendars of restaurants, florists, jewellers and related businesses. And although she apparently received a few Valentine cards in her lifetime, she never married and died in 1904 at the age of 76.

But monogamous marriage was, in fact, the reason behind the establishment, roughly 1,700 years ago, of a day to celebrate the church and love within, or with the aim of, marriage. There is considerable irony in this, because when Pope Galasius I introduced the day, he did so as a bit of a party pooper.

At the time Galasius sat on the papal throne, Rome had only recently become Christianised and many of the old pagan festivals were still celebrated in the old ways. And those ways offended the sensibilities and morality of the church.

February 15 was the festival of Lupercus, a deity borrowed from the Greeks where Lupercus was also known as Pan, an impish, pipe playing man-goat with a voracious sexual appetite. To celebrate Lupercus, near naked young men would cavort through the streets of Rome, allowing themselves to be sought out and captured by eligible young women.

The Feast of St Valentine put a stop to such debauchery and the day became a minor feast day for Christians. That feast day still exists, although, in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed Valentine from its liturgical (public worship) calendar.

The problem is that nobody is sure who Valentine was or even if a single martyr of that name existed. But it was broadly agreed that the saint venerated as Valentine was buried in Rome.

Today in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church there is a flower-crowned skull that is said to be that of St Valentine. The rest of Valentine’s remains, also exhumed in 1835, were presented by Pope Gregory XVI to an Irish priest, John Spratt, and taken to be venerated in Dublin.

On Friday the reliquary containing those relics from Rome will be placed, as they have been on 14 February for 184 years, before the high altar in Dublin’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel church. During the day there will be two special services where couples intending to be married may have their rings blessed.

This is a far cry from the only other well known Irish/Italian link to Valentine’s Day. Ninety-one years ago, during the height of Prohibition in the United States, Al Capone’s Italian mob from south Chicago chose 14 February to stage the Valentine’s Day massacre when they machine-gunned to death seven of “Bugs” Moran’s Irish crew from the north of the city. A chequered history indeed. DM



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