Well, it seems like the pagans were at it again! During mid-February (February 13 through 15), they engaged in certain fertility rites (aka extended partying) known as Lupercalia. In the Lupercalia rituals, special individuals chosen for the purpose would sacrifice goats (or dogs, if no goats were available) and anoint themselves with the blood of the sacrificed animals. These animals were then cut up into strips or thongs, and young males would run counterclockwise through the festival area either naked or nearly so, taking their strips of bloody goat meat–called februa (as in “February”)–seeking to strike as many people (especially females) as possible with the sacrificial remnants, leaving traces of (very red) blood on them. Females of child-bearing age would especially seek to stand in the path of these naked young men so as to be bloodied, with the belief that this would increase their chances of successful child-bearing. It is unclear to me whether it was the effect of contact with the sacrificial blood or the women’s purposeful encounters with inebriated and naked partying males that most helped them to conceive!
So, the church purposely decided to overlay (excuse the pun) this ribald pagan festival for fertility with the remembrance of an otherwise unmemorable martyr named Valentinus, who was purportedly put to death on February 14. Butler cleans up the tale a bit, writing:
To abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of the goddess Februata Juno, on the 15th of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints on billets [handbills] given on this day.
While there is no evidence that the beaten and beheaded Valentinus was in any way a particular loving (let alone romantic) saint, one can see how sending around “Valentine” cards (recall how, as children, many of us were expected to go around our classrooms and give Valentine cards indiscriminately to every other student!) is a lasting remnant of smacking bloody thongs of sacrificed goats onto one another as a way to spark sexual congress. All of this takes place with the color “red” predominating throughout!
Those zealous pastors may have been successful in sticking a different name on a very old custom, and eventually domesticating and transmuting some of its more overt rituals, but not in fully suppressing the human sexual energies celebrated this ancient celebration.