George Stimpson

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How did the custom of sending valentines originate?

Association of the feast day of St. Valentine on February 14 with the popular custom of exchanging love missives between persons of opposite sex seems to have been accidental. There is no evidence that the custom was suggested by or is in any way historically connected with anything in the life of a saint or martyr named Valentine. A number of early Christian martyrs and saints bore the name Valentine or Valentinius, and, strangely, the feast day of several of them falls on February 14. in the Roman and Anglican church calendars. Virtually nothing is known of these martyrs except what has been preserved in a few obscure legends. One of them was a pagan physician at Rome who, after being converted, became a Christian priest. He was imprisoned for giving aid to persecuted Christians and he restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. In the end, however, he was clubbed to death and then beheaded February 14, 269 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, generally known as Claudius the Goth. According to an apocryphal story, at a time when single men were badly needed for service in the Roman legions, this emperor issued a decree forbidding marriage of young men. St. Valentine was martyred because he befriended lovers by marrying them secretly in violation of this edict. Another St. Valentine, who is referred to as a bishop in Umbra, was beheaded at Rome about 273 A.D., his body being taken to Interamma by his disciples. Both of these St. Valentines appear to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the Roman capital, the former being interred in a cemetery still bearing his name. Even less is known about a third St. Valentine, who was martyred in Africa at a later period. The practices now associated with Valentine's Day are of considerable antiquity and were probably of pagan origin. There may be survivals of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated in February. It seems that on February 14, the eve of the purification festival in honor of Juno, young Romans were paired off by lot, the names of the women being placed in a receptacle and drawn by the men. A similar custom of pairing young people of opposite sex by lot existed in England in the Middle Ages. At first those thus paired exchanged presents and were [page 16] each other's valentines for the ensuing year. Later only the men offered presents, generally a pair of gloves, and our present-day practice of sending sentimental or comic letters or cards called valentines on St. Valentine's Day is undoubtedly a relic of this older custom. Nowadays the missives are likely to be a burlesque or travesty on the original valentines, although genuine tokens of love and affection are still exchanged by lovers and sweethearts on this occasion. The valentine custom went through a curious evolution in England. In Shakespeare's time the first girl a boy saw on St. Valentine's Day became his valentine for the year. The distracted Ophelia in Hamlet alludes to this custom when she sings:

Good morrow, 'tis St. Valentine's Day,
All in the morn betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine.
It appears that when two persons of the opposite sex met on this day the one who first said, "Good morrow, 'tis St. Valentine's Day," was entitled to receive a present from the other. In time people became cagey on the subject. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, called at Sir William Batten's on St. Valentine's Day in 1664. He refused to enter, he tells us, until "I asked whether they that opened the door was a man or woman, and Mingo, who was there, answered a woman, which, with his tones, made me laugh; so up I went, and took Mrs. Martha for my Valentine (which I do only for complacency); and Sir W. Batten he go in the same manner to my wife, and we were all very merry." When Valentine's Day came around the next time Pepys had some fun with his wife, because she held her hands over her eyes in order not to see the painters gilding the chimney piece and pictures in the dining room. The chronicler also supplies us with the earliest evidence of the exchange of notes on Valentine's Day. In 1667 he wrote: "This morning came up to my wife's bedside little Will Mercer to be her valentine, and brought her name writ upon blue paper, in gold letters, done by himself very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it." On February 14, 1668, the diarist noted: "Up, being called up by Mercer, who come to be my Valentine, and I did give her a guinny in gold for her Valentine's gift. There comes Roger Pepys betimes, and comes to my wife, for her to be his Valentine, whose Valentine I was also, by agreement to be so to her every year; and this year I find it is likely to cost £4 or £5 in a ring for her, which she desires." A fashionable young lady described in a London paper how she ob­served[page 17] Valentine's Day in 1754: "The night before I got five bayleaves and pinned one to each corner of my pillow and the fifth in the middle, and then if I dreamed of my sweetheart we would be quarried before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard and took out the yolk, and filled it with salt, and when I went to bed I ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it." Elaborate designs, pictures of Cupid shooting arrows through a heart, sentimental and comic messages in prose or verse—these came with cheap postage and increased use of the mails. Two theories have been advanced as to how the day for these customs became identified with February 14. One is that valentine is an alteration of Old French galantine (whence English gallant), a lover of the fair sex, and became associated with the saint's feast day through similarity and confusion. If this theory is correct, Valentine's Day literally means "lover's day." The other theory, which is more widely accepted, is that the popular customs are traceable to the belief, common in the Middle Ages and perhaps in ancient times, that February 14 is the day on which all birds mate. We And many references to this belief in French and English literature as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. About 1381 Chaucer wrote in Parlement of Birddes; or, the Assembly of Foules:
For this was on saint Volantynys day
When euery byrd comyth there to chose his mate.
Shakespeare alludes to it in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, in which the Duke of Athens, seeing Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia and Helena asleep in the wood in May, says: "Saint Valentine is past; begin these wood-birds but to couple now!" From this belief February 14, which accidentally was the feast day of the saint, may have come to be regarded as specially set apart to lovers and the proper occasion for exchanging love tokens.