What is love? Consider the immortal B.B. King who once mournfully sang, “Nobody loves me but my Mother/And she could be jivin’ too.” America is about to descend into Valentine’s Day: our annual festival of love and over-compensation. Today’s column, prior to transitioning into tomorrow’s fish wrap, will reverse engineer Valentine’s Day into its elements. We will then reassemble love’s components into something that Madison Avenue can sell for consumers to buy.
Valentine’s Day likely began with the Roman holiday of Lupercalia — the wolf festival. Lupercalia was the Romans’ equivalent of Mardi Gras and The Bachelor TV show rolled into two days of making whoopee in February each year. Roman dudes got together, got nekkid, got drunk and killed a dog and a goat. This was well before PETA came on the scene, so some animals were in fact harmed during this festival. After skinning the poor critters, the Roman lads would then go hang with the Roman lasses and literally hit on them with the animal skins.
In a colorful Roman theory of biology, the ladies would stand in a group to wait to be flailed with the animal skins by drunken Roman frat boys. The theory is being swatting with animal skins increases ladies’ fertility. This leads to the production of more Romans; thereby serving the Empire’s need for more soldiers. The names of the ladies would be put into a jar. The lads would then pull out a name like Jeff Probst does on Survivor. Foreshadowing 1970s key parties and the Rolling Stones’ hymn to love, Let’s Spend the Night Together, the lucky couples united by the Jar of Love spent quality time together to boogie until the cows came home.
Our old buddy, Roman Emperor Claudius II gave Valentine’s Day its name by executing a gentleman named Valentine on Feb. 14. Like many third century activities, the actual facts are difficult to pin down. One of the versions of the story is that Valentine was a Christian priest. He got on the wrong side of Claudius by continuing to marry Romans after Claudius had come out against marriage. Claudius did not want his soldiers entangled in marriage as it would divert them from their military mission. If the Empire wants you to have a wife, it will issue you one.
Like Donald Trump, it did not pay to get on the wrong side of a Roman Emperor. Claudius tossed Valentine into a dungeon. While waiting for the Executioner’s Song to be sung to him, Valentine struck up a friendship with the jailor’s daughter. As his last act before crossing to the Great Beyond, Valentine wrote a love letter to the daughter signing it, “From your Valentine.” Valentine was later upgraded from prisoner to Saint by the Catholic Church.
A couple of centuries later, Pope Gelasius I came up with the brilliant idea of combining the Lupercalia festival and St. Valentine’s day to submerge naughty bits of Lupercalia into a fifth century’s more sedate version of love as opposed to lust. After the Roman Empire bit the dust, Valentine’s Day continued. In the medieval period, between fighting off wolves and the Black Plague, every February folks would give each other handmade cards expressing their undying love. A cynic might point out that all those medieval people expressing undying love are now quite dead. Whether their love continues without them is a matter of conjecture.
America monetized Valentine’s Day into the orgy of cuteness it is today. In 1913, Hallmark Cards began mass production of zillions of Valentines to sell to a public looking for love in all the wrong places. Industrialized no calorie love for $5.95 a card covered the Earth. We are now tormented with an annual infestation of Peeps, a thoroughly hideous candy version of chicks, bunnies, dogs and goats.
The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre exploded in 1929 in Chicago (some things never change) when seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Gang were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned by Al Capone’s boys, a couple of whom were dressed as Chicago Police officers. Frank Gusenburg, a member of the Moran gang who survived a few hours after being shot 14 times was asked by the real police who had shot him. Frank, a bit of a hard case, replied, “No one shot me.”
If given the choice, being swatted with animal pelts in Lupercalia seems preferable to being riddled by bullets in Chicago. As Dean Martin once sang, “Ain’t love a kick in the head?”