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The historical customs of Valentine’s Day

By T.J. Ray

You’re forgiven if you overlooked that little piece about Valentines Day in the New Orleans Daily Picayune. In the event that you missed the February 14, 1839 edition, let us recap it for you. The article noted that Shakespeare knew of the 15th century custom where “the first woman seen by a man, or man seen by a woman, on St. Valentine’s Day, is marked as their Valentine for the ensuing year.”

In 1872 Punch Magazine offered an update of the tradition: “The belief is universal… that if you are single, the first unmarried person you meet outside the house on St. Valentine’s Day will exercise an important influence over your future destiny.  Fortunately, there is a simple way of evading the hand of Fate, open to those who desire a greater freedom in their choice of a partner in wedlock – at least, if they are willing to remain indoors till the expiration of the spell at twelve a.m. It is amazing how much faith they put into this sort of thing.”

Valentine’s Day actually started as a religious celebration. The holiday commemorated the line of Christian saints under the name Valentinus. The most significant St. Valentine was beheaded by the Roman emperor Claudius. The emperor had banned marriage in order to help his soldiers focus, but St. Valentine continued to marry couples in secret, as marriage was an important ritual for Christians. When St. Valentine refused to embrace paganism, Claudius had him executed around 269 A.D.

In 1725 fellow named Henry Bourne published his great work: Antiquitates vulgares: or, the antiquities of the common people. He refers to a ceremony that “vulgar” (common) folks practiced in the second month of the year. He wrote, “It is a Ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots, which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The Names of a select Number of one Sex, are by an equal Number of the other put into some Vessel; and after that, every one draws a Name, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as a good Omen of their being Man and Wife afterwards.”

One anonymous letter from 1775, by a girl dubbed “Arabella Whimsey,” recalls her response to the special day. “Last Friday, Mr. Town, was Valentine’s Day, and I’ll tell you what I did the night before. I got five bay-leaves and pinned them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth one to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it up with salt: and when I went to bed, eat it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it, and this was to have the same effect with the bay-leaves. We also wrote our lovers names upon bits of paper; and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up, was to be our Valentine. Would you think it? Mr. Blossom was my man: and I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house; for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.”

During the eighteenth century, if a man was particularly smitten with a woman, he might declare it to the world by pinning to his sleeve a heart-shaped piece of paper with the name of his beloved written on it. It was this custom which led to the expression  “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” A woman might achieve the same goal with respect to the man she admired by wearing a charm called a love-bagge near her heart, as recorded in Pepys’s diary entry of March 3, 1662: “And here Mrs. T. shewed me my name upon her breast as her valentine, which will cost me twenty shillings.”

How to end a conversation about the history of this day? Let us leave printed pages and consider actions. If you are near your Valentine, go at once and repledge your love. It well may be that the older we grow, the less we say I love you.

My belief is that’s because the bond becomes almost mystical. Stop reading and go remind that special one that he or she is the center of your heart.For some of us, we may not have our Valentine to speak to any longer, but, ah, how deep and abiding our love for them holds steady.

May I say to my own Valentine, “I love you, Stu.”

Happy Valentine!

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.