Though Valentine's Day now goes hand in
glove with ardent love made more intense and delicious if unrequited,
its earliest manifestation is far from salubrious. Its original form is
unpalatable enough to knee-jerk the most lovelorn swain into celibacy as
the festival was expressly held to honor and stave off wolves!
The ancient Romans celebrated the feast of
Lupercalia on 14 February each year in memory of Romus and Romulus, the
founders of Rome who were suckled by a wolf. From this festival of
Lupercalia comes the word 'lupine' meaning 'wolf'. On this day, eligible
young men would stride about Rome hitting demure and willing damsels
with strips of wolf hide. Women were only too happy to receive the
whipping, as they believe the blows made them more fertile.
The preferred version of course puts
Valentine in the starring role. Like all lovely legends, there are
several versions and in this case, a few Valentines! There are at least
two Valentines elevated to sainthood. To add to the confusion, there
could have been just one Valentine who was born in one city, died in
another and buried in a third, thus giving rise to three cults! Another
version was Valentine, either the selfsame or another with similar name,
as a devout Christian fond of children. The Romans imprisoned him as he
refused to worship their pagan gods. His jailer sneered at him,
challenging him to prove his God's might. Valentine turned to the
jailer's blind daughter and cried, "Open your eyes to the One and True
God!" The little girl blink and her sight were restored. Valentine was
It is due to semantics that 'Valentine' is
today irrevocably linked to love and romance. In the Middle Ages, the
Norman French word 'galantine' means 'lover' as in today's 'gallant
lover'. 'Galantine' is of course an alphabet and lisp away from
'Valentine'. Little surprise many assumed St Valentine to be patron
saint of lovers! This delightful state of affairs (no pun intended) was
reinforced by the medieval belief that animals and birds mate on the
second week of the second month, as on 14 February. A famous quote from
Geoffrey Chaucer, the acclaimed 14th century English poet from his
'Parliament of Fowls' goes: "For this was on Seynt Valentynes Day, When
every fowl cometh forth to chase his mate."
In 'Hamlet', Ophelia sings, "Good Morrow!
Tis St Valentine's Day All in the morning be time And I a maid at your
window To be your Valentine!" This seductive and now world famous phrase
is part of every lovelorn swain who begs his nearest and dearest darling
to "Please be my Valentine!" For those wondering how windows got
involved, in olden days unmarried women would rise before dawn on St.
Valentine's Day and wait for the first man to pass her window. This
person, or someone who looked like him, would be her future betrothed.
The charming tradition of sending Valentine cards suffused with love
messages is attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans. Charles was captured
by the English during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. On Valentine's
Day, he wrote exquisitely rhyming verses of love to his wife from the
Tower of London. His outpourings so touched the gaolers, they too
thought it was a capital idea and the practice caught on.
Through the ages, sentimental souls have
devised devious means to ascertain the identity of their would-be
spouses. Ladies in the 18th century wrote the names of all the men who
caught their fancy on pieces of paper, rolled them in tiny balls of clay
and threw them into the river. The first paper to float to the surface
contained the identity of the future husband. Another method was to pin
five bay leaves onto your pillow, one in each corner and one in the
centre. Sleep on them and the man of your dream would appear.
Unfortunately this is restricted only to five candidates. Men would
write the name of all the women he desired and picked one name from a
jar. The name drawn would be his Valentine and he paid special attention
to her for a year, during which love was supposed to blossom. Another
practice was to write the name of his sleeve and wear it for a week. Now
you know the origin of the phrase "wearing his heart on his sleeve"!
Valentine cards are not supposed to reveal
the identify of the sender as the recipient is expected to recognize the
writing. This custom was starred by Danish men with their 'gaekkbrev' or
'joking letter'. After the love messages, he signed the card with dots,
one dot for each alphabet of his name. If she guessed correctly and
confronted him, he had to reward her with an egg at Easter, another
potent symbol of fertility. Sending Valentine cards really took off with
the advent of the postal system in 1840. Esther Howland of Massachusetts
received such a card from England and was so enamored she decided to
produce them commercially. Her $100,000 a year business made her one of
the richest women of her time!
The cards of the 1800s were lavishly
decorated with pictures of Cupid, cherubs, angels, flowers,
arrow-pierced hearts and edges with satin ribbons, silk and lace. The
more extravagant flaunted feathers, semi-precious stones, mother of
pearl, tassels, even seashells. From the 1800s to the early 1900s, many
sent amusing cards containing naughty, comical verses so awfully
composed they were simply referred to as 'penny dreadful', reflecting
both the cost and content! Among the more memorable: "To Mrs. Overdress,
Your poor old husband slaves all day, To dress you in this silly way,
But each year, worse and worse you get, While he gets deeper into debt."
An insulting one reads: "Tis all in vain your simpering looks, You never
can incline, With all your bustles, stays and curls, To find a
Mercifully, the convenient convention of
not signing your illustrious name meat you could tell a lady or man what
you really thought of them without fear of reprisal.