Anne Thériault: May I Suggest an Alternative to Valentine's Day?

The Ancient Romans were far from perfect, but they managed to get a few things right—and I’m convinced that Lupercalia is one of them

Anne Thériault
A photo of a wolf howling with heart illustrations on a red background
(Photo: Getty)

Valentine’s Day is a grifter holiday. I don’t mean that it’s a day celebrated by grifters, but that the holiday itself is a grift, promising intangibles like romance and devotion in exchange for cold, hard cash. Everyone knows that you can’t buy love, but most Valentine’s Day marketing campaigns seem to suggest that maybe you could, if only you were willing to shell out for an expensive necklace. It’s a scam perpetrated by Big Jewellery (not to mention Big Floral and Big Chocolate), and I, for one, am over it.

In theory, Valentine’s Day is fine. As a little kid, handing out punny cards and gorging on cinnamon hearts was fine. As an adult, setting aside a day to shower your loved ones with affection is fine. And having a designated candy-filled friendship holiday in the middle of the slushiest month of the year is better than fine—it’s genius.

But the spirit of the holiday doesn’t really line up with the late-stage capitalism version of how it’s practiced. Somehow “love” has become synonymous with “buying your partner an oversized teddy bear that will collect dust in a closet for five years before being donated to Goodwill” and “trying to get a reservation at a nice restaurant, where, in spite of said reservation, you will still have to spend half an hour sitting at the bar waiting for a table, and by the time you’re finally ready to order food you will be embarrassingly tipsy.” If you’re single and not thrilled about that fact, it’s even worse: a whole day dedicated to reminding you of your solo status. In spite of its lofty ambitions, Valentine’s Day usually ends up being stressful, expensive and sucky for almost every adult who isn’t making money off of it. Which is why I propose that we scrap it in favour of a more traditional February holiday: Lupercalia.

Lupercalia was an Ancient Roman festival held on February 15 that was supposed to banish evil spirits and promote fertility (so, sort of the same as Valentine’s Day). Festivities began at the Lupercal Cave, which is, according to Rome’s origin story, where the city’s founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus were suckled by a she-wolf as babies. Outside of the cave was a sanctuary to Rumina, the goddess of breastfeeding, as well as a fig tree, the Ficus Ruminalis, that also features into legends about Rome’s founding. The fruit of this tree was described as “pendulous” and its sap was “milky,” so I guess it tied in well with the whole breastfeeding shrine and cave. Who doesn’t love a theme?

The Lupercal rites were performed by the festival’s own priesthood, who were called the Luperci, which translates to “brother of the wolf” and sounds like it should be the name of the Hogwarts house where all the cool kids are sorted. At an altar in the cave, the priests would sacrifice a goat and anoint each other with its blood (a portion of the ritual that can surely be modernized by the use of the aforementioned oversized teddy bear and some ketchup). Then the Luperci would cut strips of goatskin, strip naked and run counterclockwise around the base of the hill where the cave was located. As they ran, women who were hoping to get pregnant would deliberately get in their way so that the priests could playfully strike them with the bits of goatskin, which was believed to promote fertility. As an added bonus, the festival was also believed to protect the city of Rome from harm and was seen as essential to its well-being. It was an incredibly popular event before Pope Gelasius led a campaign to abolish it in the late 5th century. Even Julius Caesar was a fan, and everyone knows what a crank that dude was.

Look, love is a transcendant force and should be celebrated in all of its forms—romantic love, familial love, the love of the friendships that sustain us—but the way many of us celebrate Valentine’s Day is ridiculous. This year, it’s projected that Americans will spend $20 billion on the holiday, which is fine, people should spend their money however they want, except that that spending seems to have a lot of expectations attached to it, many of which will no doubt not be met. Why observe a holiday that causes so many people stress when we could be meeting up at the old breastfeeding cave with the wolf brothers? The Ancient Romans were far from perfect, but they managed to get a few things right and I’m convinced that Lupercalia is one of them.

No commercialism. No heartbreak. No expensive restaurants where you’ll probably embarrass yourself. Just men running naked around a hill while women watch, as the gods and goddesses intended.

More from Anne Thériault:
The Perfect In-Between of Train Travel
How Being a Girl Guide Informed My Budding Feminism
What It Was Like to Go Back to Ballet—20 Years Later

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