When we celebrate Valentine’s Day, we are celebrating both a pagan and a Christian festival. The ancient Romans believed that when wolves threatened them, the god Lupercus kept the wolves away. In his honor a festival called Lupercalia was celebrated every February fifteenth.
Later, when Valentine, a priest in Rome killed about A.D. 270 during the persecution of early Christians, was made a saint, his feast day was established on February fourteenth. In time, the two feast days were combined.
One legend is that Valentine is the patron saint of lovers: Roman soldiers did not want to leave their homes to fight, so the emperor, Claudius II, ordered young men not to marry. He believed that if they didn’t have homes, they would be more willing to go away and fight. Valentine felt sorry for the unhappy young men and their sweethearts and married many of them secretly. So today, sweethearts still celebrate in his honor.
Rome conquered much of Europe, including Britain, and British people took over the Roman holidays. After the Romans left, the British continued to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Sometimes an English girl would go to a cemetery just before midnight, carrying a handful of hempseed. As the clock struck twelve, she scattered the seed on the ground and sang:
“Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow,
He that will my true love be
Rake this hempseed after me.”
Then she would run home, glancing back over her shoulder. If her true love were following her, that meant they would be married within a year.
Valentine customs in other countries are also interesting. In Sicily a girl would sometimes stand at her window for half an hour before sunrise. If no man passed during that time, she would not plan to be married during the year. It is said that German girls tagged dry onions with the names of young men, then planted them in a container and placed them in a corner near the fireplace, believing that they would marry the man whose onion sprouted first.
Since about 1400, writing valentines has played its part in the field of love poetry. The first known ones were written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, taken prisoner in 1415 at the battle of Agincourt. In the Tower of London, he composed beautiful valentines to his wife. Many were saved and are in the British Museum.
Young Valentine’s Day celebrants in the 1700s sometimes drew lots for game partners for the entire year. The men wore the names of their partners on their sleeves.
In England, valentine writing became so popular that The Complete Valentine Writer, published as late as the nineteenth century, provided models of valentine composition for suitors compatible with their vocations.
At first, a gift was sent, though a verse went along too. Later the verse itself became the valentine. Giving lavish presents was the custom in the time of Charles II. From 1660 to 1685, ladies drew gentlemen’s names in lotteries.
There was a certain Duke of Richmond, Samuel Pepys tells us in his Diary, whose name was drawn by a Miss Stuart for her valentine. He gave her a $4,000 jewel. Mr. Pepys gave his lady practical things—green silk stockings, garters, and shoelaces.
In wealthy French homes, young ladies and gentlemen placed verses into a valentine box. On separate slips their names were put into another box. Then each person drew a name and a verse. The gentleman read his verse to the lady. She read hers to him. To everyone’s amusement the verse often did not match the person.
Early-day valentines were usually handmade and beautifully designed. By the 1800s, valentines were being made in factories. At first only black and white pictures were printed on attractive paper. Then valentines became trimmed with ribbons and real lace. Paper lace was substituted about 1840. Ornamentation was made of silk, satin, velvet, spun glass, or even feathers. By the end of the nineteenth century, valentines made entirely by machine sold for a few pennies.
Valentines came to the United States with the Puritans, when they settled Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630, before he left for America, John Winthrop, the first governor, wrote his wife: “February 14, 1629. Thou must be my valentine.”
During the bleak winter months in the new land, there was little farm work to be done so a young man could spend many hours making a valentine if he wished. When the fourteenth of February came, he folded his valentine, sealed it with sealing wax, and delivered it himself. A man would often send a valentine as a marriage proposal, and sometimes his young lady sent one in return saying yes.
Americans probably send more valentines than all of the other countries combined. The valentine box is even older than valentines. When we draw valentines from a box, we do as the Romans did who drew names from a jar 2,000 years ago!