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A Day for Romantics – Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is the biggest day of the year for sending greeting cards. This is an official day for romance, meaning couples flock to restaurants with candles, gifts of chocolates, jewelry and even promising proposals, although the proposers may be advised not to make this public in case of rejection.
As everyone probably knows, the day itself is dedicated to a saint, although no one is sure who it was. It appears that there are many candidates with the same name. One was a Roman priest who secretly performed marriages for soldiers after the Roman emperor ordered that all soldiers in the Roman army be celibate. He also hid Christians who were being persecuted and consequently converted and imprisoned himself. While imprisoned, he reputedly restored the gaoler’s daughter’s sight and may have sent her a note signed ‘Your Valentine’, the evening before his death in 270.
An alternative candidate is the bishop of Terni in central Italy, who was martyred a few years later.
Our Valentine’s Day also has a pagan link, the eve of the Roman festival of Lupercalia. According to tradition, on the eve of the festival lots were drawn among the young men of Rome to decide which woman would be designated as their lover for the following year. A man gives gifts to a randomly chosen woman, but it’s not exactly romantic.
As a date for romance, Valentine’s Day was recognized early in Britain. However, the earliest references, such as in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls from about 1381, specify the day on which the birds chose their mates.
Early British traditions also included the opportunity to choose a Valentine. An old tradition held that Valentine was the first member of the opposite sex on the morning of February 14th. But to get the ‘right effect’, some people arrange to blindfold their lover and take them home.
Another divination game involved clay. The youth wrote the names of their favorites on a slip of paper which was then sealed in moist clay and dropped into a pot of water. Whoever floats to the surface first will be their future lover.
At other times, mutual arrangements will be made to host a Valentine. Noted diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of men arranging to invite his wife to be his Valentine, although Samuel was Elizabeth’s Valentine for two years. His diary refers to gifting gloves to his own Valentine in March. Giving gifts to Valentine at Easter was part of the 17th century tradition.
Written eulogies for Valentine’s Day appear to have developed in the mid-18th century, the earliest example now in Hull Museum and dating from the 1750s. Between the 1780s and 1800s the idea became really popular and by 1825 the London Post Office had become established. Handling 200,000 more letters on February 14 than any other date.
Like Christmas cards, commercial Valentine cards appeared in the 19th century. Around 1820, stationers began producing embossed headed paper with designs suitable for romantic messages. In the 1840s, such papers began to appear decorated with satin or lace, and were accompanied by matching envelopes and even pre-printed messages. The modern Valentine card had arrived.
Although the tradition has been in decline since 1914, the popularity of sending Valentine cards in Britain has been on the rise since the 1950s. According to the Greeting Card Association, Valentine’s Day sales reached a staggering £41.5m in 2011, up from £40.7m in 2010.
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