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The Sweet and Sordid History of Valentine’s Day: A Teacher’s Guide

Child making valentines, learning about the History of Valentines Day

According to projections from the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers will shell out $20.7 billion on cards, flowers, candy, and meals. We can chalk that up to marketing efforts made by Hallmark and Godiva, but the Valentine’s Day origin story goes much deeper than that.

Romantic love has captured the imagination throughout history, leading to beautiful writings, peculiar ceremonies, and even ritual sacrifices and executions. Your students will be fascinated by the history, literature, and traditions surrounding Valentine’s Day; that’s why we created this guide to give you an overview of the history of the holiday and some ideas for classroom activities you can use to introduce it to your students.

Ancient Pagan Rituals: Lupercalia

The History

Lupercalia was an ancient Roman festival that took place between February 13 and 15. Originally, the holiday started with a ceremony symbolizing the reunification of Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders. After an animal sacrifice, two priests would step forward, have their heads touched with the bloody knife, and then have the blood wiped away to symbolize that the brothers were at peace.

The festival was also associated with fertility, and this was where the celebration took a more…“romantic” turn. Some of the more bizarre elements of the holiday included:

  • Animal sacrifices: As mentioned above, the festival started with a sacrifice of goats and a dog (which were not commonly sacrificed in ancient Rome). The priests would then strip the hides from the goats and make them into whips.
  • Whipping: The priests (or a select group of young men) would then run through the streets hitting women with the bloody hides from the sacrifice. Some women actually volunteered to be hit because the sacrifices were thought to increase fertility.
  • Nudity: Historians continue to debate the level of nudity that went on at the festival. Some say only two priests took off their clothes for the initial ceremony. Others speculate that all the young men ran naked through the streets with their hide whips and young women stripped to catch their attention.
  • Matchmaking lottery: Although there isn’t as much historical evidence for this, some traditions hold that young men would draw the names of eligible women from a jar, and each couple would be together for the duration of the festival. If they liked each other, some couples would stay together and even marry.

Classroom Application

So how do you make this brutal and salacious bit of history more palatable for children? With younger students, you might want to leave out the details about sacrifices and nudity. However, Lupercalia can still be a good opportunity to discuss social–emotional issues such as courtship practices both now and throughout history, and how to appropriately express strong feelings while remaining respectful of others’ boundaries.

For older students, you might use Lupercalia as a launching point to talk about why different cultures sacrificed animals, the practice of arranged marriages, and the myriad ceremonies and rituals surrounding fertility. Have students identify questions about these topics that are of interest to them and then do independent research to find the answers.

St. Valentine’s Secret Weddings

The History

The stories surrounding St. Valentine are varied and fragmented because there were multiple saints named Valentine during this period in history. However, the generally agreed-upon narrative goes something like this:

In the mid-200s A.D., the Roman Emperor Claudius II had entangled the empire in several military struggles and needed soldiers to fill his ranks. However, not enough men were volunteering. Claudius was mystified that men didn’t seem to want to lose their lives in his bloody campaigns, and got it in his head that the reason they weren’t joining the military was that they were too attached to their wives and children. His solution was to ban all marriages and engagements in the empire.

Of course, not even an emperor can keep people from falling in love, so instead of disappearing, the marriage business went underground. Valentine, a Catholic priest, performed clandestine marriage ceremonies and aided persecuted Christians, which was illegal at the time. When he was caught and brought before the emperor, Claudius actually liked the priest and kept him imprisoned for a time (rather than executing him immediately). During that time, Valentine befriended the jailer’s daughter, who was blind.

Valentine eventually tried to convert Claudius to Christianity, which angered the emperor enough to condemn the priest to death. Before Valentine was dragged off to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, he healed the jailer’s daughter of her blindness and wrote a good-bye note to her that ended with the words “from your Valentine.” He was executed on February 14.

Classroom Application

Your students might be familiar with sending flirtatious texts and SnapChats, but Valentine’s Day is a great time to introduce them to the lost art of love letters. We are lucky enough to have primary historical documents of love letters between husbands and wives, star-crossed lovers, and intimate friends. Check out this list of some of the world’s most famous love letters. You can have students, either individually or as a group, read and do a rhetorical analysis of these letters to learn the different literary devices and vocabulary people used to express love at different times in history.

Chaucer Chimes In

The History

Neither Lupercalia nor the death of St. Valentine gave rise to the Valentine’s Day practices we know today. It wasn’t until Geoffrey Chaucer that Valentine’s Day evolved from a drunken romp or the remembrance of religious martyrdom to a celebration of courtly love.

The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love first appeared in Chaucer’s poem “Parliament of Fowls,” which contains the line: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” Other poets began to build on this idea that Valentine’s Day was the time to “choose [a] mate.”

Chaucer also helped to develop the modern expressions of love and longing we are familiar with today. Championed by Chaucer and his ilk, 13th-century literature often focused on knights who fall in love with noblewomen who cannot legally accept their advances (likely due to arranged marriages). This inspired many yearning suitors to pen poems and epistles known as valentines. The tradition stuck.

Classroom Application

Poetry is a great opportunity for students to practice their skills at reading aloud. Poetry often uses rhythm and rhyme and expresses deep emotions, and these elements should impact how students read the words aloud.

First, have your students listen to poetry read by performers to get an idea of how they read rhythmically and change their tone to match the words they’re saying. Then challenge students to give their own dramatic readings, either in front of the whole class or small groups. To stay on theme with Valentine’s Day, we recommend directing students to this collection of love poems from the Poetry Foundation to look for poems they’d like to read aloud.

More Strategies for Making Connections in Your Classroom

Despite the bizarre origins and today’s commercialization of the holiday, Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to talk with your students about how people form genuine, loving connections, and encourage them to express that love to the people in their lives.

For more ideas on how to make history, poetry, and creativity come alive in your classroom, check out these courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Be Versatile With Verse: Poetry in the Classroom: Learn robust strategies for incorporating poetry into teaching practice and how to help students understand conventions of poetry, interpret different styles of poetry, creatively express their responses to poems, and write original poetry.
  • Students Are Not Customers: If teachers aren’t careful, the business world’s customer-service mentality can creep into their classrooms, hindering teachers’ ability to challenge their students in a meaningful way. In this course, you’ll learn how to build a strong rapport with your students and create a rigorous, differentiated curriculum that will push students to their highest potential.
  • Read Between the Lines: Developing a Critical Historical Perspective: At some point, every history teacher has been asked, “Why does this matter to me?” In this course, you’ll learn how to teach your students to build critical historical perspectives and contextualize history in a way that allows them to draw real meaning from past events.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers K–12 educators more than 240 online, self-paced professional development courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends. All courses are offered for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.