February 14th -- known 'round the world as "St. Valentine's Day" or just "Valentine's Day" if you refuse to put the religious part towards it. Actually, it's no longer a "religious holiday" since the Catholic church removed it from the "official calendar" in 1969 (what an odd year to do that). In fact, it wasn't really a Catholic celebration first.
Arcadian Lykaia (for the Greeks) or Lupercalia (for the pre-Romans) was a cleansing festival to release the purity, health and fertility of a city and its inhabitants. There is debate whether it was a Greek or a Roman celebration first, but seeing how the Romans throughout history basically stole their history from the Greeks, we'll say the Greeks get the praise on this one. It was a celebration to the Greek god Pan (or the Roman equivalent Faunus) and goats and dogs were sacrificed while salt mealcakes were burned by Vestal Virgins. I don't have a goat; my dogs will NOT be sacrificed; and it's pretty darned hard to find a Vestal Virgin around these parts -- so we'll just go back to the more modern version of the holiday.
If you ask most anyone why Valentine's Day is celebrated, those who believe they know their history will say it's because Saint Valentine was beheaded on February 14th. Problem is, which Saint Valentine? There's Saint Valentine of Rome and Saint Valentine of Terni. There is also record of another Valentine who was martyred in Africa but not much information is known about him. True, Saint Valentine of Rome's skull is still venerated by many and crowned with flowers while on exhibit at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Saint Valentine of Terni is also buried on the Via Flaminia but not close to Saint Valentine of Rome. Who knows what kinds of arguments might break out if they were close together.
The legend continues that Saint Valentine (it's not noted which one) was arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II who attempted to convert Valentine to Roman paganism. Valentine refused, even though he was told he would be put to death if he did not convert, and attempted to convert Claudius II to Christianity. As he was being held in prison, awaiting his execution, Valentine supposedly became enchanted with the jailer's blind daughter. The story ends with either Valentine leaving a love letter that he wrote the evening before his execution to the blind daughter professing his undying love (thus, the first "Valentine") or that Valentine cured the jailer's daughter of her blindness before being beheaded. Either way, his head was lopped-off and it still baffles me why we don't get boxes of little chocolate decapitated heads full of chewy goodness instead of the giant heart-shaped things.
However, the heart-shaped things were introduced into the holiday because of the possible love that Saint Valentine may or may not have had for the blind girl. The first reference of love in connection with Valentine's Day most likely came from Geoffrey Chaucer's poem Parlement of Foules, written to commemorate the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Because Chaucer refers to Valentine's Day in the poem, many believed that he was writing about February 14th. A little-known fact (unless you're an English major like me and had to read Chaucer whether you liked it or not) is that Chaucer may have been referring to May 2nd, a celebration in the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa. You could have guessed that religion would have crept back in even if the original Valentine story wasn't true. There may have been other writers who referred to February 14th and Valentine's Day in their work, but dating medieval writings can be difficult and Chaucer is pretty well-known (for good or for bad) so I'm sticking with this version. And it would make sense that Chaucer was referring to May 2nd because he spoke of birds seeking their mates and, even back in the 14th century, February was a little early and cold for birds to be thinking of mating. But if this is the true version, then I guess we should be biting the heads off of small candy birds. I do that with Peeps around another religious/pagan spring festival, but I digress.
So, where does it all come from? We know the popular tradition of giving cards was done as a marketing ploy which makes publishers large sums of cash every February as people panic for something to send so they're not picked-out as the one who forgot what holiday it was. And of course florists jump-in with the flowers and candy and balloons which makes Valentine's Day their equivalent of Black Friday for the year (at least until Mothers' Day comes along). Kids in American schools are either (1) required to purchase little cards that they can exchange with EVERY member of their class to show that they "want to be their Valentine" or (2) are forbidden to bring ANY cards, candy, etc. to school to share with their classmates for fear that someone might be forgotten, someone might get their feelings hurt, someone will think it's a religious holiday, or because someone has a peanut allergy. And, yes, I know that paper cards don't have peanuts in them, but the person addressing the cards might have been munching on peanuts while writing their little name on the card or, more likely, the wealthier parents who want to show their child has more and attempts to "buy" the favor of his/her classmates by attaching large bags of candy to the card which could have peanuts. It's a vicious cycle.
The only St. Valentine's "celebration" I can think of that won't offend anyone religiously or cause them anaphylaxis is commemorating the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. For those who don't know their history on this subject, I'll make it brief 'cause otherwise I could do a huge post on this event alone.
On February 14, 1929, members of Al Capone's South Side Italian gang waited across the street from 2122 North Clark Street in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. They were waiting for Capone's rival gang boss, George "Bugs" Moran, who led the North Side Irish gang, to arrive at that address. Moran had been lured there supposedly with the promise of cut-rate whiskey from Detroit's Purple Gang, friends of Al Capone. Capone wanted revenge for prior killings by Moran's gang and only wanted Moran targeted in this hit, not the entire North Side gang. Moran's men had arrived at the garage early that morning but Moran and one of his assistants was running late. When Moran arrived behind the garage, he saw a police car arrive and decided to wait elsewhere.
What Moran didn't know was that the police car was there as part of Capone's plan for his associates to escape. Capone had hired hitmen from outside the Chicago area so that Moran wouldn't be able to recognize them. Two of the men wore police uniforms and entered the garage as if conducting a raid. The five members of Moran's gang and two associates were lined-up against the brick wall as if they were to be searched. As the men were facing the rear wall of the garage, two more of Capone's men entered and the four hitmen, using two Thompson submachine guns and two shotguns, murdered the men inside and then escaped by having the "police officers" escort the other two men to the waiting police cars. Witnesses told the police that they saw policemen leaving the area with two men "in custody."
It wasn't until Highball, a German Shepherd owned by one of the victims, began barking and howling that anyone came to look inside the garage. Highball and Frank Gusenberg, who despite being shot fourteen times refused to say anything about the killers before dying three hours later, were the only two survivors. Photos of the gruesome aftermath were posted in newspapers around the country.
The infamous wall from 2122 North Clark Street (minus a few dozen bricks sold over the years by its previous owner) is now on display at the Las Vegas Mob Museum, so I guess if you want something non-traditional for your Valentine, you can take them there.
Me? Maybe I'll take the Thompson into the garage and fire a few blank rounds towars the brick walls in commemoration. It's less fattening than chocolate; it won't die like cut flowers; and it's a tradition I can do every February 14th.