Although St. Valentine's Day is only observed in a very few places in the United Kingdom, and tends towards a speedy disappearance, it is a custom which, for this reason, is specially worth notice, inasmuch as some of us who are by no means old can remember the days when the sending of "Valentines" by a certain section of society was quite a festival in itself--almost as vigorous as the fashion of 'Xmas cards is at the moment. St. Valentine was a Christian Bishop, who is alleged to have suffered martyrdom in 271 A.D., on February 14th. Roman youths and maidens on this day were accustomed to select partners, and the Church, fulfilling its work of replacing heathen divinities by ecclesiastical saints, allotted the day to St. Valentine. Butler in his Lives of the Saints says:--"To abolish the heathen, lewd, superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the 15th of February, several zealous Pastors substituted the names of Saints in billets given on that day. St. Frances de Sales severely forbad the custom of Valentines, or giving boys in writing the names of girls to be admired and attended on by them; and to abolish it, he changed it into giving billets with the names of certain Saints, for them to honour and imitate in a particular manner."
Apparently the effort was not altogether successful, for the specimen Valentine verses that have come down to us from old English times, as well as some of the pictures which used to be flaunted in shop-windows in the last century, testify to the intimate connection between the Pagan idea and its attempted Christian reconstruction. St. Valentine, as a good man, can have no reason to thank the Church for its attentions to his name.
Gay has left us a poetical description of some rural ceremonies used on the morning of this day:
"Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind,
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find,
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas'd the stars away;
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should house-wives do).
Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of Fortune, shall our true love be."
Evidently the women-folk used to take Valentine's Day somewhat seriously. Witness the following from an old book--the Connoisseur:--"Last Friday was Valentine Day, and the night before I got five bayleaves, and pinned four-of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth 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 with salt; and when I went to bed ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. 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. 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."
The dying of St. Valentine's Day is a testimony to the growth of a sense of restraint and fine feeling. But even this year (1910) in London one can see the old vulgar Valentine shown in shop windows.