Pick from the Past
Natural History, February 1941

Strange things are bound to happen when an ancient
Roman Fertility Rite is inducted into European society.

henever a popular custom is torn loose from its moorings, it seems to roll along a tortuous course through time and space like a rudderless ship, gathering barnacles and all manner of incidental accretions until the original shape and line is very nearly obliterated. Such, at any rate, appears to have been the fate of the old and mellow festival known as St. Valentine’s Day. Two Roman churchmen who had precious little to do with cupid’s bow, or with each other, have given the day its name. But their biographies offer so unreasonable a basis for the general character of the celebration that scholars have digressed into a variety of byways seeking explanations a bit more on the amatory side. Etymologists have suggested that v and g are often interchangeable in popular speech; that “valentine” may be derived from the French galantin (gallant) and that the name of the two saints came to be applied more or less through the repetition of an error in proof reading. It is also barely possible that the old English “voluntyne” might be a Latin derivative meaning “willing love” or something of the sort. However, neither explanation is particularly satisfactory.

As for the saints themselves, the first Valentine was a martyr, but not to love. He was executed during the Christian persecutions promulgated by the Roman Emperor Claudius. The other Valentine died most unromantically when he choked on a fishbone. It is generally agreed that the feast day named in their memory stems from the pagan rites comprising the Lupercalia, a collection of ceremonies for the most part calculated to conjure fertility and easy delivery among women, which, in ancient Rome, were celebrated each February in honor of the deities, Pan and Juno Februata. All this, of course, went on for a good many centuries before either of the saints was born.

For some reason or other, one feature of the Lupercalian ceremonies called for the jumbling of young ladies’ names in a pot. These in turn were drawn by all the young men, the idea being to find out who was going to be your best girl for the coming year. Whether this was a means of divination or simply a lottery is not clear. But it does seem that the young gallants of old Rome penned nothing in the nature of:

I want my dear maid a sweet partner for life,
So tell me in earnest that you’ll be my wife.

The custom was a literal embodiment of “the marriage lottery.” But matrimony apparently was never mentioned.

However, the pastors of the early Christian church soon began working overtime to eradicate pagan superstition and particularly the pagan moral code. They knew—or presently discovered—that these ancient and deeply rooted modes of behavior could not he utterly abolished. Therefore, as with nearly all of the pre-Christian feast days absorbed in the Church, they sought to apply an over-layer of post facto respectability. Transforming the earthy gaiety of the Roman festival into an otherworldly lesson in piety, they substituted saints’ names for those of buxom lassies. Each saint became a patron for the coming year, serving as model for the daily behavior of whoever pulled his name out of the pot. This Procrustean distortion of custom must have strained many a young man’s patience—imagine drawing the scabrous St. Simeon Stylites in lieu of the local Juliet—and it was not long before something like the original practice bloomed again.

Yet, when it began to reappear, the Church had at least won a point. For superstition now emphasized that every girl who was drawn stood an excellent chance of marrying the boy before the year’s end. And the girls had also won a point. Their place was no longer exclusively in the pot and they, too, were privileged to draw names. The lottery became coeducational and therefore highly complicated. Everyone had two valentines: the one you drew and the one by whom you were drawn. Custom dictated that you owed most of your allegiance to the former. But the complexities of the situation in a monogamous society can readily be seen.

Fertility rites and Semitic monotheism simply don’t mix, and though Valentine’s Day survived as a kind of bootleg Lupercalia, the Church had so adulterated the mixture as to deprive it of most of its original vigor. The ritual gradually lost dignity and degenerated, seemingly in response to the inherent confusions and contradictions. Medieval France yields a significantly garbled example. Here the practices corresponded to our mock marriage and were inextricably bound up with the ancient Lenten fires. This is what happened. The names of various young people were called out in pairs as they assembled around the bonfire. Obviously the barker or master of ceremonies, out for a laugh then as now, would strive to hit upon the most grotesque combinations possible so that all serious values were jettisoned. The ritual required an exchange of gifts between the couples, and in this exchange we discern the long arm of Mother Church. The presents were called rachat (ransom or redemption) and were supposed to redeem the whimsically paired valentines from the flames of the (eternal) bonfire. Any pair which failed to give presents was burned symbolically in small fires kindled at their doorsteps.

From this it would appear that the custom of exchanging presents on Valentine’s Day was originally a matter of souls rather than hearts. Of course, we don’t exchange today—it’s only the man who pays—but this restriction is a heritage dating from the England of the Stuart Restoration, when an elaborate spirit of courtly gallantry sprang up in the wake of Puritan reformism.

Chance or choice

Valentine’s Day has undergone so many local modifications that it is very difficult to discover anything resembling a straight line of development, even when we confine our attention exclusively to England, where counties and shires differed markedly in their method of celebration. One thing seems fairly clear, however. If the festival were to have any real significance as an institutionalized means of seeking a mate, Choice would sooner or later have to supersede Chance. On the other hand, if the day were set aside for the purpose of taking auguries, then Chance would naturally remain in the saddle. And, for a time at least, it did.

The persistent—and probably clerically inspired—superstition that your valentine would eventually become your wedded husband gave rise to a variety of ways of ascertaining his identity beforehand. For example, a young woman would enter the churchyard on St. Valentine’s eve, wait until the clock struck twelve, and then run twelve laps around the church, declaiming:

I sow hemp seeds, hemp seeds I sow,
He that loves me best come after me and mow.

According to tradition she scattered real hemp seed, expecting to see the image of her future spouse puffing after her through the gloomy night air. Equally bucolic and perhaps even more liable to misunderstanding was the unmaidenly custom of peeping through keyholes before opening doors on Valentine’s Day. If the damsel spied a cock and hen in company, it was a good omen that she would marry before the year was out.

Dreams have always been interpreted as prophecies, and the divining of a future lover’s identity by inducing nocturnal fantasies scarcely comes as a surprise. Devonshire girls once picked yarrow from a man’s grave repeating:

Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first I have found,
And in the name of Jesus I pick it from the ground.

The yarrow was then placed under their pillows before retiring. Or they might cross their shoes in the form of the letter T, saying:

I place my shoes like the letter T
In hopes my true love I shall see
In his apparel and his array,
As he is now and every day.

We have a record of one eighteenth century young lady who took extraordinary precautions to ensure dreaming. She pinned four bay leaves at the corners of her pillow and placed a fifth in the middle. Then, hard-boiling an egg, she removed the yoke, filled the cavity with salt and ate it shell and all without speaking or drinking afterwards. Unfortunately we do not know precisely what images this gastronomic feat caused to appear in her sleeping mind. One would surmise, however, that she took sanctuary in the nearest nunnery.

The means of divination on Valentine’s Day were legion. One of the simplest and apparently the most prevalent is handed down to us in a verse of the poet John Gay:

Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see
In spite of Fortune shall our true love be.

Accordingly, Pepys, in his immortal Diary, records that he laughed heartily, one Valentine’s Day, because his wife had to sit all morning with her eyes shut for fear of spying one of the house painters who had come in to redecorate the apartment. Evidently valentines had by this time lost their significance as courtship overtures. They were valid for one day only, and it made no difference whether you were married or not. Both Pepys and his wife had valentines, the latter being claimed by a little shaver named Will Mercer, who is judged to have been about twelve years old, and who presented her with the first illustrated valentine ever mentioned in English literature. It was about this time that the custom of giving presents began to decline. Some of the gifts were very expensive, and apparently the game hardly seemed worth the candle. Gallants reneged at squandering jewelry worth several hundred pounds on some lady whose attachment was fleeting and purely ceremonial.

The festival had become avowedly artificial. Even writers of the time were alert to the decadence, and Lord North wrote: “A lady of wit and quality . . . would never put herself to the chance of a valentine saying that shee would never couple herself but by choyce. The custome and charge of valentines is not ill left, with many other such costly and idel customes which by a tacit generall consent wee lay down as obsolete.”

Of course the “tacit generall consent” was slow in materializing and the “custome” did not die out by any means. It was carried on, along with many other similar practices that had long since wandered from their original function. But Choice came to the fore, and it was the smart thing to send frilly missives of affection on Valentine’s Day to the maiden of your heart. In some quarters the elimination of the Chance element gave the valentine the force of an actual proposal and, no doubt, many troths were plighted on this historic day.

At first the verses were genuine, if crude: “Oh my love, my dear love pretty! How I love you!” garnished with a dripping red heart spitted on an arrow. But before long, valentine verses were being turned out professionally with the “heart-dart” rhyme scheme rivaling the “June-moon” of our own Tin Pan Alley. In 1797 there appeared a book called the Young Man’s Valentine Writer and a few years later, Cabinet of Love: or Cupid’s Repository of Choice Valentines. Included were verses suitable for different tradesmen. For literary quality, compare a quotation from one of these:

A piece of charming kid you are
   As e’er mine eyes did see.
No calfskin smooth that e’er I saw
   Can be compared with thee.

You are my all, do not refuse
   To let us tack together;
But let us join, my Valentine,
   Like sole and upper leather.

     with the latest valentine message supplied by Western Union:

Dan Cupid’s dart has scored a hit,
My wounded heart is off a bit,
But I’ll gladly bear the pain
If my love’s not been in vain,
Be mine, forever, be mine, my Valentine!

People frequently lament this industrialization of sentiment and regard it as a repellent by-product of compulsory literacy. But though our tastes might “improve” with time, we shall probably retain the commercialized sentiment until that doubtful millennium when everyone sketches and versifies with equal skill.

Perhaps even more cogent than the growth of democratic literacy was the rise of cheap postage. Early in the nineteenth century, reductions in mailing costs kept pace with new developments of the entire field of communication, and soon postmen were weighted down under a deluge of flowery verses and paper frills. But the boom was not for long, since the valentine subsided when the Christmas card came into favor in the middle of the century.*  The latter rapidly outstripped its sentimental forerunner and continues the overwhelming favorite to this day, doubtless because Christmas occupies a much higher rank in our scheme of loyalties and because the details of its celebration are universally understood.

The valentines, meanwhile, again shot off at a tangent. Someone invented “comic valentines,” verbal brickbats anonymously delivered, whose manufacture became a minor industry. Six million were sold in one year in the United States. Here indeed was the crowning perversion. It caused the time-honored festival to be turned over to a pack of scuttling, doorbell-ringing urchins. There follows an example of the sort of thing they left thrust in the mail slot; evidently a lineal, but malevolent, descendant of the “trade valentine” of former years.


Of all the scamps you are the worst,
   You ugly looking snipe!
You swindle us with defective work,
   Wretched traps and rotten pipe.
And you’re not alone a swindler
   But a murderer as well.
For you poison many with sewer gas
   Your thievish gains to swell.


Oddly enough, children have played a considerable part in undermining this feast day, which once clearly belonged to the age of puberty. Through their agency, Valentine’s Day picked up a peculiar, mercenary quality which it shares with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even Good Friday.

In line with the latter is the strange note that children once used to beg a special type of pastry known as Valentine’s buns, which apparently resembled hot cross buns. Also it was an ancient custom at Beaumanor in Leicestershire that all children who put in an appearance on Valentine’s Day should receive a penny, while a house in Essex raised the ante by offering sixpence to every child who showed up at 8:00 a.m. The prevalence of this feast day begging can be seen in a number of verses which ring curiously to the modern ear:

Good morrow, Valentine.
Change your luck and I’ll change mine.
We are raggety, you are fine
So prar gon us a valentine.


Knock the kittle agin the pan,
Gie us a penny if ’e can.
We be ragged and you be fine.
Plaze gie us a valentine.
Up wi’ the kittle and down wi’ the spout,
Gie us a penny and we’ll gie out.

This is certainly a far cry from the amorous festival of Pan and Juno Februata, and the answer seems to be that St. Valentine’s Day, once removed from its Lupercalian beginnings, became a footloose vagrant, fixed on the calendar but otherwise a heavy borrower from other appointed days in all seasons among the peoples of western Europe. The churchyard divinations smack of Halloween (see “Halloween: Ancient Festival of the Dead,” by D. R. Barton, Natural History, October 1938). The begging may originally have been taken from some religious ceremony of alms-giving. And with the arrival of comic valentines, the day has taken on some aspects of April Fool.

Nevertheless, it has been kicked about for so long now that we would hate to see it go. Charles Lamb has written a moving apology for the best that is in the festival, and we could do no better than to close on his note of buoyant optimism:

However we may observe the day of St. Valentine, its character has been stamped by the generations who entered into its celebration sincerely, joyously, spontaneously; and however indifferent we may be, we cannot escape that influence which is the inheritance of years gone by, when swains became gallants, and the humblest maiden was made happy with a devoted valentine for at least a day.

* In William S. Walsh’s Curiosities of Popular Customs, occurs the following interesting statement: “The Christmas card is the legitimate descendant of the ‘school pieces’ or ‘Christmas pieces’ which were popular from the beginning to the middle of the nineteenth century. These were sheets of writing-paper, sometimes surrounded with those hideous and elaborate pen-flourishes forming birds, scrolls, etc., to which writing-masters still have an unnatural and inexplicable attachment, and sometimes headed with copperplate engravings, plain or colored. They were used by school-boys at the approach of the holidays for carefully written letters exploiting the progress they had made in composition and chirography. . . . Charity boys were large purchasers of these pieces, and at Christmas time used to take them around their parish to show and at the same time solicit a trifle.”

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