Valentine's Day 2013: 5 Quirky, Lesser-Known Facts and Traditions

There is something to be said about a holiday that involves a flying toddler who uses his makeshift weapon to inject oodles of love into our bloodstreams.

There is only one day of the year in which 145 million greeting cards (over 10 million more cards than Mother's Day) are mailed, 189 million stems of roses are purchased, $1 billion worth of chocolate is bought (the average American male spends as much as $156), and 220,000 wedding proposals are made in our country. If you guessed good ‘ol Valentine’s Day (with a grin or frown), give yourself a pat on the back.

But strange holidays call for us tradition enthusiasts to inquire "where in the blue hell did they come up with this stuff?" After all, couldn’t there have been any other day or any other way to express love throughout the year?

Here are seven quirky traditions, folk tales, and facts that I’ve learned from my beloved.

1. The Feast Of Lupercalia

As is the case with any significant saint or so-called Christian tradition, convention has it that we should dig around for potential pagan roots.

In the case of St. Valentine’s Day, the Feast of Lupercalia, the Wolf Festival, presents itself. As early as the founding of Rome in 758 BCE, Romans recognized the day as a time for purification, fertility, and warding off evil spirits. The “parallels” between the festival and Valentine’s Day are little more settled than Christmas and the Cult of Mithras.

From what I’ve gathered, they are more entomologically driven arguments than factual. For one the Latin word for wolf, lupus, is also rooted in the Latin word for brothels. There was also the sacrifice of goats, which is a symbol of sexuality, as well as the goat horn being a phallic symbol. While those are the mythological origins of the festival, the Romans made things a little more interesting by having young men draw a female’s name through a lottery and then claiming her as their companion … at least for the day. Go figure.

2. The Case For Christians: St. Valentine

There are at least three significant Valentine martyrs in the early church. But the one who is most commonly attributed to the day of love is Valentinus, who was beheaded outside of the Flaminian Gates on February 14, 269 under the order of Claudius II. The story goes that the saint was arrested for marrying Christian couples at a time when it was illegal to merely help a Christian. While he was imprisoned, he would receive cards and send them out to supporters with words of hope. But there’s a significant amount of people who even argue that Valentinus sent cards exclusively to his jailer’s daughter, with whom he loved until the moment he was beheaded.

3. “My Little Valentine”

The first real autobiography I ever read was on Frederick Douglass, and ever since I was 9 years old, I kid you not, I primarily associated Valentine’s Day with Douglass’ birthday.

Although Douglass’ birthday is more universally recognized as February 17, most people who were formerly slaves could not confirm their exact date of birth. But knowing that he was born sometime in mid-February of 1818, and considering that his mother always called him “my little Valentine,” it only made sense for Douglass to celebrate his birthday on February 14, Valentine’s Day. So consider giving someone a history book and telling them “Happy Douglass Day!” next February 14.

4. "Lovebirds"

Ever wondered why they call couples “lovebirds” and not something like “happy dolphins?” I have. And after doing a little digging, I learned that a 14th century superstition has it that birds started searching for their companion for mating around that time of the year.

But that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of strange bird traditions. By far, the most bizarre lovebird tradition goes to middle-aged Europe, where it was believed that a woman could guess what type of man who would court her next depending on the first bird she saw on February 14. If she saw a goldfinch, then she’d marry a sailor. A dove meant happiness, and the old wretched owl meant she would never get married!

5. The Weird Kid With Wings

Even as a religion major, I have to pause and ask myself, “Where do the Romans come up with this stuff?”

Cupid (the Latin root for “desire” is cupido) is known as the god of love in Roman mythology. The son of Venus, who is the goddess of love, and Mars, who is the god of war, (though he’s also said to be the son of Mercury, the winged messenger, in some accounts) would run errands for his mother by fulfilling hits with two different arrows: gold arrows for true love and lead-tipped arrows to invoke sensual passion.