Modern holidays and their traditional roots

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. Over the years, it seems especially commercial holidays have slowly slipped into the realm of obscurity.

To be fair, much of this trend is probably a personal disposition. I am probably just getting older. But something about sharing pre-made, mini cards and chalky, heart-shaped candies (which are not even available this year) with friends and lovers alike, sounds especially superfluous. It is also just impossible to pretend Valentine’s Day has anything to do with love or passion in today’s age of cynicism. But it has not always been that way.

Ancient pagans took part in a primitive tradition honoring the roman god Lupercus, a wolf-hybrid mother that birthed and raised Romulus and Remus in a cave. As legend has it, Romulus would later kill his twin brother and found Rome. In the cave where the twins were supposedly raised, women would be stripped to their underwear and whipped on their behinds, as it was thought to increase fertility. Women would often be raffled and claimed as sexual partners for the year by men.

During harsh winters, women were largely dependent on the men they were with for shelter, warmth and food. However, come springtime, they celebrated the Galenalia festival dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, arts and war, who today is strongly associated with the Greek goddess Athena.

This festival brought an annual wave of empowerment. We know from ancient Roman poets that bands of women would frequently break up with men and depart for a weeks-long journey to renew spirituality and independence with the death of old relationships.

By the fourth century, Christianity was spreading like wildfire and Pope Julius I wished to recognize several martyrs named Valentinus who all died in different brutal, inspiring ways. The pope swallowed the traditions of Galenalia for a new feast day assigned to Feb. 14, on the Julian calendar. Thus, Valentine’s Day was reborn as a popular Christian holiday, rebranded from its pagan roots that honored Lupercus.

Several hundred years later, the church sought to rid Valentine’s Day of its original archaic traditions. Specifically, women, who at this point in time were likely not “raffled off” and whipped in the name of ritual, were expected to be obedient, fertile and committed. Thus, a very intentional rebranding of the holiday was in order: women would no longer break up with men, but instead, men and women alike would be encouraged to renew their love and commitment for one another. Over time, popular culture underwent a humanitarian shift in attitude that associated Valentine’s Day with love, fertility and sexuality.

It was not until 1969 the Catholic calendar officially dropped Valentine’s Day, rendering it a longstanding tradition without a religious base, ultimately resulting in what we see today: an empty day of commercialized cliches that millions of people around the world celebrate, with relatively few knowing why.

Valentine’s Day is not the only pagan holiday to be absorbed by Christian empires as grand marketing schemes when the religion was on the rise. Halloween, for example, was originally called Samhain (pronounced saw-ween). Samhain recognized the Autumn equinox as the day between life (summer) and death (winter), and was thought to be the time with the thinnest barrier between the physical and spirit world. On this night, pagans would honor the dead.

Christians attacked this tradition by rebranding it as demonic, implying practicing pagans recognizing the holiday were evil witches or sorcerers. Today, it’s pagan traditions such as trick-or-treating and Jack-O-Lanterns survive, but it is largely reduced from a longstanding tradition of honor to another commercial holiday.

And perhaps most surprising of all is Christmas. Today it is recognized as the most Christian holiday, but again, was stolen from pagan communities celebrating the winter solstice by coming together to sing, feast and essentially prove to the world that they were very much alive in the midst of the harshest season during a period called “Yule.”

Because of its relatively secular roots, ancient Christians and pagans alike recognized the holiday. The bible does not specify Jesus’s birthday, and it did not occur to ancient Christians that they even needed to celebrate it until the fourth century when they declared Christmas as Christ’s birthday.

Until then, the most fundamental Christian holiday was Easter to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. But even Easter, named after the goddess of spring Eastra, was usurped from the pagans that recognized the spring equinox. This was a simple rebranding for the Christians to celebrate resurrection, since the holiday, often called Ostara after the Germanic spring goddess Eostre, was already largely centered around rebirth and new beginnings.

It’s only natural for traditions to change over the course of thousands of years, but the intentional smothering by Christianity thousands of years ago has effectively cut off our modern spiritual connections to the world we honored with rituals. The beauty of these pagan traditions is in their timelessness. Individuals can disagree with the legitimacy of mythological roots, but the religious aspects take the back burner to recognition of community and compassion.

Anyone, regardless of faith, can come together to agree that spring is a time of rebirth and that winter, despite being a time of loneliness, death and cold, is a great time to celebrate life. Pagan cycles intensely focus on seasonal archetypes and speak to the primitive roots of our souls, regardless of religious affiliation.

The colonization of pagan holidays over the millennia of recorded history has to be one of the biggest blunders of humanity. Now, as we tediously recognize corporatized holidays that had their spirit sucked away for a massive religious PR campaign, we have to ask: was it worth it? Are we happy?