Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest days of the year for sending greeting cards. It’s the official day for romance, meaning couples crowding into candlelit restaurants, gifts of chocolate, jewellery, and even the hopeful proposal, although proposers may be advised not to make this too public in case of rejection.
As everyone is probably aware, the day itself is dedicated to a saint, although no one is quite sure exactly who he was. There appear to have been several candidates sharing the same name. One was a priest of Rome, who performed marriages for soldiers in secret after the Roman Emperor decreed that all soldiers in the Roman army should be single.
He also hid Christians who were being persecuted and was converted and imprisoned himself as a result. Whilst in prison, he reputedly restored the sight of the gaoler’s daughter and, the evening before he was clubbed to death in 270, is meant to have sent a note to the girl signed ‘Your Valentine’.
An alternative candidate is a Bishop of Terni in central Italy, who was martyred a few years later.
There is also the pagan link, with our Valentine’s Day being the eve of the Roman festival of Lupercalia. By tradition, lots were drawn amongst the young men of Rome on the eve of the festival to decide which woman would be designated as their sweetheart for the following year. Presents were given by the man to his randomly chosen woman, but is not exactly romantic.
As a date for romance, Valentine’s Day was identified early in Britain. However, the earliest references, such as in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls dated to around 1381, set it as the date on which birds chose their mates.
There was an element of chance to the choosing of Valentines in the early British traditions as well. One old tradition had it that the first member of the opposite sex one sees on the morning of 14th February is one’s Valentine. To get the ‘right result’, however, some people would arrange to be taken blindfolded to their sweetheart’s home.
Another divination game involved clay. Young people wrote the names of their favourites on slips of paper which were then sealed in moist clay and dropped into a bowl of water. The one that floated to the surface first would be their future sweetheart.
At other times, mutual arrangements would be made to organise a Valentine. Renowned diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of arranging for men to call on his wife to be her Valentine, although Samuel was Elizabeth’s Valentine for two years. There is also a reference in his diaries to giving his own Valentine a gift of gloves in March. Gifts to one’s Valentine at Easter were part of the tradition in the 17th century.
Written compliments for Valentine’s Day seem to have developed in the mid-18th century, with the oldest example now in the Hull Museum and dated to 1750. Between 1780 and 1800 the idea really started to become popular, and by 1825 the London Post Office was handling 200,000 more letters on 14th February than any other date.
As with Christmas cards, the commercial Valentine’s card began to appear in the 19th century. Around 1820, stationers started to produce embossed headed paper with designs suitable for romantic messages. In 1840, such papers began to appear decorated with satin or lace decorations and accompanied by matching envelopes and even pre-printed messages. The modern Valentine’s card had arrived.