By Olive Thorne.
There's one thing we know positively, that St. Valentine didn't begin this fourteenth of February excitement; but who did is a question not so easy to answer. I don't think any one would have begun it if he could have known what the simple customs of his day would have grown into, or could even have imagined the frightful valentines that disgrace our shops today.
It began, for us, with our English ancestors, who used to assemble on the eve of St. Valentine's day, put the names of all the young maidens promiscuously in a box, and let each bachelor draw one out. The damsel whose name fell to his lot became his valentine for the year. He wore her name in his bosom or on his sleeve, and it was his duty to attend her and protect her. As late as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this custom was very popular, even among the upper classes.
But the wiseacres have traced the custom farther back. Some of them think it was begun by the ancient Romans, who had on the fourteenth or fifteenth of February a festival in honor of Lupercus, "the destroyer of wolves"—a wolf-destroyer being quite worthy of honor in those wild days, let me tell you. At this festival it was the custom, among other curious things, to pair off the young men and maidens in the same chance way, and with the same result of a year's attentions.
Even this is not wholly satisfactory. Who began it among the Romans? becomes the next interesting question. One old writer says it was brought to Rome from Arcadia sixty years before the Trojan war (which Homer wrote about, you know). I'm sure that's far enough back to satisfy anybody. The same writer also says that the Pope tried to abolish it in the fifth century, but he succeeded only in sending it down to us in the name of St. Valentine instead of Lupercus.
Our own ancestry in England and Scotland have observed some very funny customs within the last three centuries. At one time valentines were fashionable among the nobility, and, while still selected by lot, it became the duty of a gentleman to give to the lady who fell to his lot a handsome present. Pieces of jewelry costing thousands of dollars were not unusual, though smaller things, as gloves, were more common.
There was a tradition among the country people that every bird chose its mate on Valentine's day; and at one time it was the custom for young folks to go out before daylight on that morning and try to catch an owl and two sparrows in a net. If they succeeded, it was a good omen, and entitled them to gifts from the villagers. Another fashion among them was to write the valentine, tie it to an apple or orange, and steal up to the house of the chosen one in the evening, open the door quietly, and throw it in.
Those were the days of charms, and of course the rural maidens had a sure and infallible charm foretelling the future husband. On the eve of St. Valentine's day, the anxious damsel prepared for sleep by pinning to her pillow five bay leaves, one at each corner and one in the middle (which must have been delightful to sleep on, by the way). If she dreamed of her sweetheart, she was sure to marry him before the end of the year.
But to make it a sure thing, the candidate for matrimony must boil an egg hard, take out the yolk, and fill its place with salt. Just before going to bed, she must eat egg, salt, shell and all, and neither speak nor drink after it. If that wouldn't insure her a vivid dream, there surely could be no virtue in charms.
Modern valentines, aside from the valuable presents often contained in them, are very pretty things, and they are growing prettier every year, since large business houses spare neither skill nor money in getting them up. The most interesting thing about them, to "grown-ups," is the way they are made; and perhaps even you youngsters, who watch eagerly for the postman, "sinking beneath the load of delicate embarrassments not his own," would like to know how satin and lace and flowers and other dainty things grew into a valentine.
It was no fairy's handiwork. It went through the hands of grimy-looking workmen before it reached your hands.
To be sure, a dreamy artist may have designed it, but a lithographer, with inky fingers, printed the picture part of it; a die-cutter, with sleeves rolled up, made a pattern in steel of the lace-work on the edge; and a dingy-looking pressman, with a paper hat on, stamped the pattern around the picture. Another hard-handed workman rubbed the back of the stamped lace with sand-paper till it came in holes and looked like lace, and not merely like stamped paper; and a row of girls at a common long table put on the colors with stencils, gummed on the hearts and darts and cupids and flowers, and otherwise finished the thing exactly like the pattern before them.
You see, the sentiment about a valentine doesn't begin until some Tom, Dick, or Harry takes it from the stationer, and writes your name on it.
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