Tomorrow, February 15, is Lupercalia, an ancient Roman holiday that focuses on purifying for spring. Unlike my spring cleaning sessions, approached with mops, the vacuum cleaner, and feather dusters and lasting until I feel I’ve worked off enough calories to enjoy a couple of chocolates, Lupercalia was a three-day event full of feasts and celebrations. Also the festival included some elements that have me wondering why? Why would people do this? Clute, Texas’s three-day Great Texas Mosquito Festival, which includes a contest awarding first prize to the person who is bitten by the biggest mosquito, raises similar questions. Members of the order of Luperci sacrificed animals, rubbed the sacrifices’ blood onto their faces, and then cut the animal skins into belts called februa (the origin of the word February). Then they ran naked around Rome, using the belts to whip everyone they met. Women, especially, shoved themselves into the Luperci’s paths, because it was believed that being smacked by a februa could help with problems with infertility and child delivery. When in Rome…do weird stuff, I guess.
Even once Christians dominated Rome, Lupercalia was still popular and broadly celebrated until around 500 CE. This was probably because festivals are fun and profitable, boosting local businesses as well as attracting tourists and their dollars. I bet every goat dealer, salve peddler, and midwife for miles around looked forward to Lupercalia. Just as the lozenge manufacturers of today can’t wait for Spivey Corner, North Carolina’s annual National Hollerin’ Contest.
The other big holiday of the week is Valentine’s Day, celebration of romance and other sweet things. Now that Sonny’s an adult, and given that the pandemic has nixed a nice dinner out with Dave, my Valentine’s Day preparations have been even more minimal than usual. No longer do I need to count the students on Sonny’s class list to figure out what size valentine pack to buy. We don’t have to find a free afternoon for writing notes and taping in stickers and candy hearts (sweet, but nowhere near as sweet as the marshmallow creme celebrated in the Somerville, Massachusetts “What the Fluff” festival). I started prepping for Valentine’s Day roughly 18 hours ahead of time.
Of course I headed to CVS. Drugstores are the one-stop shop for affordable cards, candy, gifts, and flowers. The store was so crowded that I wondered if I had wandered through time and space to Ohio’s Annual Avon Heritage Duck Tape Festival, which attracts some 60,000 souls a year. Nope: it turned out to be senior citizens arriving for their Covid vaccines and CVSers from other stores who were touring our store because it’s “going digital!” Also the rest of the last-minute shoppers. I edged past the buckets of stuffed animals, roses and baby’s breath, and perfume and headed for the greeting card section at the back of the store.
I can’t blame the Romans for everything. The historical figure who bears responsibility for the lines at CVS is poet, diplomat, and international man of intrigue Geoffrey Chaucer. His 699-line poem Parliament of Fowls, c. 1382, specifies Valentine’s Day (already February 14th at that point, but with no romantic associations), as the date that birds chose their mates. “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,/When every fowl comes there his mate to take.” I’m not sure if anyone at Elko, Nevada’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has ever recited these lines, but quite a few writers took Chaucer’s idea and ran with it.
I paid for my gifts and made my way home, relieved that the holiday would proceed in its cheerful, normal way. Cards, hugs, and candy. Lace and red and white. The same colors, coincidentally, as those of the New Orleans’ San Fermin Festival, in which Roller Derby girls wielding plastic bats chase happy people through the city streets. All roads lead to Rome, as they say.
Happy Valupercalentines Day.