Today, Valentine’s Day is – for many – a time for loved ones to exchange gifts. But the 14 February celebration hasn’t always been about showering the one you love with sweet treats and gifts. It was once a time of haphazard matchmaking and more modest displays of affection, as this excerpt from Hamish Hendry’s Holidays & Happy-Days (1901) can attest.
Not very much is known about St. Valentine. Indeed, there were several saints of that name who were set down in the calendar for loving remembrance on the Fourteenth day of February. One of them was a martyr, and died for the Christian faith at Rome. But these saints have no connection with the ceremonies of St. Valentine’s Day except that the priests of the early Christian Church set that particular day apart for a special feast. This feast was meant to take the place of certain ceremonies practised by the common people of the old world in their worship of the Roman gods. But the people did not easily forget their old customs, and some of these were, until recent times, practised on St. Valentine’s Day in a new form.
One of these customs was for young men and maidens to cast lots in the choice of partners. Upon the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, in England, it was usual for young people to meet together, each one writing his or her name upon a piece of paper. When this was done the papers were rolled up tightly and put into two bowls. Then each young man drew the name of a girl and she was his Valentine, and each girl drew the name of a young man and he was her Valentine. It was little more than a merry mode of choosing partners for the festival of St. Valentine; but sometimes the young folks took this choice by lot quite seriously, and the partnership ended in marriage.
With the English poets St. Valentine’s Day has always been a favourite. You will find it mentioned by Chaucer, Shakspere, and many another of lesser note. At one time it was not uncommon for a young man to send a set of verses to his Valentine on the morning of the 14th of February. Most of these were very poor verses, but sometimes a true poet sent a greeting to his Valentine. As when Drayton sent these happy lines:
‘Muse, bid the Morn awake,
Sad winter now declines,
Each bird doth choose a mate;
This day’s St. Valentines
For that good Bishop’s sake
Get up and let us see
What beauty it shall be
That fortune us assigns.’
Nowadays St. Valentine’s Day has lost nearly all its popularity; certainly, it has lost all its merry charm. The time is not so distant—your fathers and mothers may remember it—when the postman’s bag was laden with valentines upon St. Valentine’s Day. Some of them were in large embossed envelopes and the valentines themselves were glittering things. There was nearly always a little gilt Cupid with his bow and arrows, and the mottoes and verses were always very very sentimental. Some of the valentines, also, were strange and ugly as they came from the postman’s bag. These were what is called “mock” valentines, and the people who received them were sometimes very angry. Now the sending of valentines has fallen into disfavour, especially the pretty ones. As for the others, the ugly mock valentines, they are very ill-natured and foolish. Have nothing to do with them; they are not worthy of happy St. Valentine’s Day.