La festa degli innamorati
The Feast of the Enamored
On every February 15, the ancient Romans would celebrate a fertility festival called the Lupercalia with the sacrifice of a goat in the sacred cave dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the city’s legendary founders. Priests sliced the goat’s hide into strips and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. Boys would run through the streets, gently slapping women with the goatskin strips to enhance their fertility in the coming year.
Later in the day, all the young unmarried women in the city would place their names in a large urn. Rome’s bachelors each selected a name and became that woman’s sexual partner for the year in a sort of trial union that often led to marriage.
As it grew in power in the centuries following the birth of Christ, the Catholic Church abolished this pagan practice. In its stead it created the most romantic of saints’ days on February 14 to honor a martyred Roman priest named Valentino.
Although historical accounts differ, Valentino seems to have served in Rome in the third century A.D., when the Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage for young men because he believed that bachelors made better soldiers. Valentino, sympathetic to young lovers, defied the decree and continued to perform weddings.
Arrested and tortured, the tender-hearted priest developed a friendship with a young girl — perhaps his jailor’s daughter—who came to visit him. Some say they fell in love; others claim that he cured her blindness. Before being beheaded, the priest sent her a note that he signed, “il tuo Valentino.”
Lovers around the world have been using the same phrase ever since on the holiday Italians call la festa degli innamorati. The town of Vico del Gargano in Puglia celebrates Valentino, its patron saint, by inviting people in love to drink the juice of the local oranges, considered an elixir for love and happiness. Young couples make their way through the famous “Vicolo del bacio,” (the alleyway of the kiss), a tiny pathway only nineteen inches wide, where they exchange kisses and sweet nothings.
Throughout Italy, which has not commercialized Valentine’s Day as much as in the United States, couples celebrate with una cenetta intima (a romantic or intimate dinner), flowers, or the famous Baci Perugina, small, chocolate-covered hazelnut “kisses” wrapped with a poetic quote in four languages. Some examples:
Un cuore che ama è sempre giovane -- A heart that loves is always young.
L’amore è come la luna: se non cresce, cala -- Love is like the moon. If it doesn’t get bigger, it wanes.
Siamo angeli con un'ala sola, solo restando abbracciati possiamo volare -- We are angels with only one wing; only embracing each other are we able to fly.
Click here to send a "bacio" to someone you love.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Click below to hear a popular contemporary love song: "Ho voglio di te" (I want you):