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What custom is observed on St Valentine's Day?

Updated on May 24, 2009
Image by Michael Pohl
Image by Michael Pohl

Valentine's Day, a day honoring lovers. It is celebrated annually on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine. The day is usually observed by the exchanging of gifts and messages of affection. Valentine messages can be either sentimental or humorous. Often they are marked with the traditional symbol of Valentine's Day, a large red heart pierced by an arrow.

The celebration of Valentine's Day probably originated in the Roman feast of Lupercalia, which was held each year on February 15. During this feast, Roman boys and girls drew lots that would pair them off in courtship for the following year. Later this ancient festival custom became associated with the name of a Christian martyr- St. Valentine, the anniversary of whose death was February 14. According to some traditions, however, February 14 was chosen as the day to honor lovers because, in many countries, birds begin to mate at that time of year.

Valentine's Day is actually the feast of two saints of the same name, both of whom were martyred in the 3d century A.D. One was a priest who died in Rome, and the other was Bishop of Terni. Either St. Valentine may be regarded as the patron saint of love.

What custom is observed on St Valentine's Day?

February 14th is the feast of two Christian martyrs named Valentine, but neither has anything to do with the custom, observed by people in many countries, of sending cards, flowers or presents to one's sweetheart on this day. In Britain, the custom is to send a valentine card without signing one's name. Some people think that the origin of the day as a lovers' festival springs from the legend that birds choose their mates on February 14th. The real origin of the custom, though, seems to be an the ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Pan. Young people at the festival drew lots for partners, and then exchanged presents. In A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius tried to change the old pagan festival into a Christian one by moving the date of the Lupercalia from February I5th vo the Feast of St Valentine on the 14th.

Valentines are the earliest form of greeting card, first found in printed form in the eighteenth century.

Charles d'Orleans, Lydgate, the Paston Letters, Shakespeare, Chapman, John Gay - all of these witness that the day was devoted to a species of playful human mating, the charm of which was the double doubt as to the choice of partner and the degree of seriousness. When Margery Brews married her 'well-belovyd Valentyn, John Paston, Squyer' (1477) she was neither the first girl nor the last to do so; the heroine of Ophelia's song in Hamlet ('And I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine') who paid with her honour for the expression of her preference, may have had her parallels in real life; but many more cherished the innocent sentiment which led to such a bequest as that made in 1535: 'I gyf and bequeth to my Valentyn Agnes Illy on ten shillings.'

Luck, or accident, or anonymity, were essentially part of the notion of a Valentine. Choice of partner might be made on St Valentine's Eve from folded screws of paper containing a name, and by some form of divination; or on St Valentine's morning by the 'accident' of first encounter. The choice might be accompanied by a present, and this might be serious or trivial: a ring such as Pepys records the Duke of York giving to Lady Arabella Stuart in 1667, worth £800; or the grand piano which an embarrassed young lady of Norwich refused to accept in 1872.

By some traditions the present was not to be given immediately, but in the form of a pair of gloves upon Easter Day. And by others the present, though made upon St Valentine's Day itself, must be anonymous, left upon the doorstep with no other message than 'Good morrow, Valentine' or 'St Valentine's Love'. To this tradition belongs the custom of sending an anonymous copy of verses whose sender must be guessed. This custom is the origin of the Valentine proper, the message decorated by hand, or engraved, or printed, which is the earliest form of greeting card.

In the eighteenth century youths and maidens who found composition difficult were helped by the publication of Valentine Writers. These handbooks, first referred to in 1723, contained stock forms of verse and greeting which could be copied or adapted. The verses looked less bald when tricked out with the charming curves of eighteenth-century penmanship, with true love knots, hearts, doves and Cupids.

By folding paper and using sharp scissors the ingenious made and coloured the most charming cut-out emblems. But already by the mid-eighteenth century the stationers had come to the aid of those who were not skilful or ingenious, by commissioning copperplate engravings to which the sender might add his (or her) own handwritten message or verse. By 1822 Dr Nares could note in his Glossary that the sending of Valentines 'makes several additional sorters necessary at the Post Office in London'.

In Norwich in 1872 no less than 150,000 letters passed through the Post Office on St Valentine's Eve.

The nineteenth-century stationers showed great ingenuity and, at first, exquisite taste, in making new kinds of Valentine. The new processes of reproduction: lithography and aquatint; embossed and lace papers (the first dating from about 1820); acrostic Valentines, silhouette Valentines, daguerreotype Valentines, and mirror Valentines began to proliferate. There were mechanical Valentines with figures that rolled their eyes and put out their tongues, churches whose doors opened to show the wedding inside, Cupids that hovered and Cupids that rowed boats. There were nonsense Valentines with cabbages for heads, insulting Valentines and ribald Valentines. There were cobweb Valentines and cameo Valentines, and pretty Valentines in theorem-work which by stencilled watercolours fixed with gum arabic very plausibly imitated Indian Khaligat painting.

By the mid-century, both in England and America, Valentines were being produced by assembly-line technique: rooms full of girls sitting side by side each adding her constituent to the growing fantasy, sticking, perforating, embossing, clipping, painting, and blowing on the metallic powders for fancy borders (a bonus was given for this last task, to buy milk against lung trouble).

By 1880 the vogue began to blow itself out; Christmas cards and picture postcards burgeoned; and this folk-custom that had become an industry shrank into triviality. It could live so long as it still represented a personal offering, half earnest, half jest, in a community that was still social enough for gossip to count. It shrivelled in cities where no one knew his next-door neighbours, and where the 'New Woman' was going out on her bicycle in her bloomers and asking for the vote.

Nowadays it has become an event and marked on the social calendar. Pushed by commercialism it has become an advertisers dream. Florists see record profits for the day unmatched by any other.


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