This sermon was first written and presented as the Valentines Day sermon for First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield in 2016.
Every culture has rituals, visual metaphors and physical prayers that speak to the core of what it is to be human. Valentine’s Day has a visual vocabulary that holds meaning to humans, even if it has to speak through the language of commercialism and consumption. The dominant imagery of Valentine’s Day tells of human sexuality and spring.
The hearts, the romance, the lingerie, in a consumeristic and disposable way, speak to courtship and relationships, of new beginnings or continued affairs. The flowers – even if they are mostly imported from Columbia this time of year – are clearly a sign of the coming spring. Images our culture uses to symbolize the archetypes of human relationships and seasonal shifts.
Today’s incarnation of Valentine’s Day stands in the echo of a much more flamboyant spring festival. February may seem early for spring. It is a bit chilly out, still, if you haven’t noticed. But spring festivals are not about the first harvest or the first planting, even. They are about celebrating that the winter is waning and preparing – emotionally, spiritually, and physically, for the coming year.
Even from this winter, as unseasonably warm as it has been spring sounds… welcome. But we aren’t there yet, no matter how much we will it to be. We must wait.
This isn’t a new wait. For as long as humans have been wintering anywhere away from the equator, humans have spent January and February trying to will Spring back around. This goes back before the Romans stole from the Greeks who stole from their own predecessors. . Spring coming, the new growing year commencing, was worthy of grand celebration. And right about now in the earth’s revolution, all over the northern hemisphere, folks have been preparing for spring for thousands of years.
Chinese New Year, which started on the 8th, last Monday, is a spring festival. Although the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1912 with the founding of the Republic of China, the New Year had traditionally be celebrated at the start of the growing season. The, perhaps most reasonable, start to the new year.
Even the Christians, as much as certain sects of Christianity have tried to wash their hands of the earthly and the physical, feel the urge. Any gardener can tell you that this is the time of year when thoughts go to cleaning up and planning out the next year. Some of these festivals and rituals hold much of their original form. During the traditional rural Italian celebration of Lent there are agricultural rituals that demand respect alongside the spiritual ones. The fields of Italy go through a process. First the trees are cut back, along with the brush and brambles. Then the previous year’s stalks are burnt down. Then the fields are tilled and planted again. Lenten, after all, comes from Lencten, meaning spring. Lent began on the 10th, last Wednesday.
And Valentine’s Day? Valentine’s day rests, either by coincidence or by plot, right on the foundation of one of an extraordinary spring festival, one of the lewd and sexually steeped celebrations in European history.
Let’s jump back a couple thousand years. Faunus, the Roman god of the fields and the animals (sometimes called Innus, when he gave the cattle fertility) is a goat-like God famous for his propensity for having sex with animals. He did not love them in a platonic sense. And as he went around and made the animals fertile in the early spring the Romans celebrated a festival called Faunalia on 13th of February.
For those of you familiar with the Greek Gods – Faunus has always been correlated with Pan. Pan, you know… The goat man who was (according to Cicero and Duris of the Samerian) the son of Penelope. Duris went so far as to claim that Penelope had slept with all 108 of her suitors while Odysseus was away and Pan was the spawn of all those men. The Romans saw Faunus as a parallel creature to Pan. Tells you what sort of God Faunus was.)
But back to Rome. Februa was the first of the documented spring festivals of Roman origin. It lasted from the 13th until the 15th, but it was not named after the month. Quite the opposite. February, when a new month was being devised, was named after the festival. There were previously 10 months, but in 713 BC they decided to add two more months. It turns out that they hadn’t even bothered to put months in winter – it was such a cold desolate time it didn’t deserve months, it seems. And the new year started with Martius or March – about the same time the Chinese calendar starts.
Februa was a tribute to cleansing. Fever comes from the same root – sweat it out. Get ready for the new growth. When Februa is celebrated you can be sure that calving and foaling is not far off, that seeds are nearly ready to tuck into earth.
Februa morphed into Lupercalia. Exactly when is hard to tell from the records, but the 15th of February was already celebrated as Lupercalia by 44 B.C. It morphed into a celebration of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, with a great celebration and animal sacrifice (two male goats, one dog) at the cave. Then the men would (naked, of course) run through the streets together. They carried with them strips of the hides of the male animals that had been sacrificed… fringed pieces of hide they would smack people with as they ran past.
The ladies would line up along the race site and hold out their wrists. It was believed that the hit of one of these fringed pieces of leather by a naked man would help a woman become pregnant, or would aid the pregnancy if she was already so.
There was also a ritual each man drew the name of a woman out of a jar and through that lottery determined who he would keep company with for – at the very least for the festival, and by some reports the year.
The pieces of leather were called Februa. Because it is difficult for the new way to completely erase the old.
The link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day is similarly a bit erased, unclear. The early Catholic Church declared that there should be a Valentine’s Day on February 14th in 496 AD. Surely the meaning of that date did not escape them at that time in Rome, as they were still celebrating Lupercalia, with their leather strips and naked runs. But Valentine’s Day was not immediately a story of romantic love, but an attempt to purify and clean the record as only the church seemed able to.
The change from Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day was a clear leap – but if it was a morphing of the pagan fertility/sex/spring festival into a Christian holiday or if one replaced the other without influence is debate. In the late seventeen fifties the theologian Alban Butler proposed that there was a clear link.
“To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets given on this day.”
What is most interesting to me is that, in our own crude way, we seem to be returning to the roots of the festival. The holiday was Saints and Martyrs, Christian buttoned down affections, for the last thirteen hundred years. And yet – in an expensive and fabricated way, something human in us seems to search at this time of year for those common themes of the original pagan festivals. Sex and fertility, although instead of a promise of healthy birth we prefer red lace. (And now that Fifty Shades is popular, perhaps the leather fringed goat hide for smacking wrists will come back, as well?)
The agricultural rituals have given way to the immediate satisfaction of a Columbian rose. The rituals lack the real connection that likely sparked the original pagan festivals – connection with the cycles of the earth and the cycles of life – but what we see today, in some ways, much more closely resembles the Lupercalia festivals than any saintly liturgy.