Be My Valentine

Long before anybody had heard of Saint Valentine to warm the heart and inject passion into the equation, mid-February was looked forward to as an exciting time for lovers.

From 400 years BC, Roman citizens held a popular yearly sweepstake as an act of worship to their god Lupercus. Young women's names were put into a box and then picked at random by eager young men. The couples thus selected were then legally paired for the next twelve months.

Six centuries later, the soldier-emperor Claudius II banned young males from getting married -- because he took it into his head that unattached youths made better soldiers.

An early Christian priest, Valentine, didn't agree with his Emperor and continued to marry young couples in secret until Claudius dicovered his disloyalty and after imprisoning him, eventually had him brutally executed on February 24th, 270.

The story goes that while he was locked up, Valentine fell madly in love with the daughter of his jailer and when he was finally taken to be killed, he wrote her a message signed, 'From your Valentine.'

Using the name of the martyred priest as an excuse, the Church, in AD 496, took the opportunity to finally abolish the pagan ancient lottery held to worship the god Lupercus and so decreed a small change in the rules:

From then on, either gender would pick a name out of the hat, but instead of getting a year of companionship (and most likely the sexual gratification that came with it), they drew the name of a Saint whose life they were expected to emulate for the next year.

What a crushing disappointment that must have been for the lusty youngsters in Roman days!

The day of the new-style lottery was named in honor of Saint Valentine whose choice, 226 years after his death, was intended more to displace the traditional god Lupercus than from any honest reverence towards love.

As so often happens, public memory was more powerful than the latest political ideas -- especially when as unpopular as this, and Saint Valentine remained associated with passion and love. Young Roman men, missing their traditional sweepstake, took instead to handing hand-written notes to the girls they admired on February 14th.

Thus the tradition of distributing and receiving Valentine cards and messages was introduced over 1500 years ago!

The earliest known card that still exists is in the collection of the British Museum.

It was sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415. He was a prisoner in the Tower of London at the time and so his feelings of love were probably quite heightened!

Five hundred years ago the Bishop of Geneva made efforts to reinstate the regular 'emulate a saint' lottery, but the people were not much interested. February 14th was by then too firmly associated with lovers for the Church to successfully interfere.

In 1797 a British publisher, a man who would have done well in modern times, published a guidebook called 'The Young Man's Valentine Writer' in which were hundreds of pre-written Valentine messages for the creatively challenged.

Anonymous Valentine cards not surprisingly started with the Victorians. Those outwardly straight-laced folks secretly loved anything that hinted at being 'naughty', but publicly had to maintain an aura of respectful purity. As a consequence the words in their cards became ruder and ruder, while the senders remained hidden behind a respectful anonymity.

The first seller of Valentine's cards in the United States, Esther Holland was able to charge up to $35 for a single card. An enormous amount of money way back in 1870!

In case you are wondering, we still write kisses with the letter 'x' because back when reading and writing was a rare skill, your signature was a cross. So that the mark would carry weight, people would kiss the cross they had drawn -- much the same as they would kiss the Holy Bible. So the hand-drawn X and the kiss became one and the same.

Thanks to Martin Avis for this article.

I wish you a romantic Valentine's day! XX