“Will You Be My Valentine?” New Era, Feb. 1974, 31
Looking back on elementary school may bring recollections of struggling with long division, forgetting lunch money, labeling prepositional phrases, and having to sit in the classroom during recess. But it also was a time when October meant pumpkins, November turkeys, December Christmas trees and presents, January fancy calendar drawing, and February valentines. It was during February that every shoe box in the house was carefully examined as a possible candidate for the all-important valentine box. Of course, after elaborate decorating with tinfoil, crepe paper, paper doilies, and dainty, construction-paper hearts, it seemed incomprehensible that the box was ever built for anything but valentines. For 49 cents there were small, thin, paper envelopes and even smaller cards—except an especially large one for the teacher. It became the project of everyone in the class to create that special card that would have dull-scissored edges, an off-center fold, and lopsided hearts, and would declare affection in huge, black-crayon letters—i love you mommy. This was the valentine that was posted on the kitchen bulletin board for weeks afterwards.
The original Valentine was a priest in Rome and had little concern for cupids, hearts, or loving couples. He was executed on February 14 in the year 270 for assisting Christian martyrs. His connection with matters of romantic love is entirely coincidental. When the Romans invaded Britain they substituted the names of Christian saints in pagan celebrations. One of these festivals, Lupercalia, traditionally held on February 15, was renamed in honor of Saint Valentine because of the proximity of the anniversary of his death. The pagan celebration was in anticipation of spring when birds began mating and a young man’s fancy turned to lighter thoughts and love.
The holiday must have been well established by the late 14th century, for Chaucer mentioned in his Canterbury Tales that that day was “when every fowl cometh to choose his make (mate). …” During the next centuries, choosing for oneself a valentine became synonymous with becoming engaged, with humans pairing as did the birds. It also became a popular day for official proposals of marriage. The name came to mean the choosing of a sweetheart, with many romantic references in popular ballads and songs. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Ophelia sing:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”
Over the years drawing lots to choose one’s valentine, as well as selection by preference, became a tradition. It was also customary for married persons to receive valentines after drawings. An even older custom provided that one’s valentine was the first person encountered on the morning of February 14. One 1662 diary entry states:
“I did this day purposely shun to be seen at Sir W. Batten’s because I would not have his daughter to be my Valentine, as she was the last year, there being no great friendship between us now, as formerly. This morning, in comes W. Bowyer, who was my wife’s Valentine, she having (at which I made good sport to myself) held her hands all the morning that she might not see the paynters that were at work in gilding my chimney-piece and pictures in my dining room.”
This chance matching often proved embarrassing, so it was often prearranged that one’s “draw” or “first encounter” would be the desired one. In France when girls were jilted by their happenstance valentines, they would burn effigies of those who had abandoned them. This caused the French parliament to outlaw the practice of valentines in 1776.
But some even objected to the use of the word valentine for both sexes. A poem published in 1783 suggested that the word be reserved strictly for males. The author stated it to be anachronistic for a man to address a female as his valentine and recommended that the name Delia be substituted instead.
Verse books were sold for a penny so that even the worst bard could produce delightful cards.
The practice of sending valentines flourished in Britain and America but declined in Europe. English printers of the Victorian era made available to the public matching envelopes and cards, and the uniformed penny post established in 1840 helped to increase the valentine’s popularity. Soon cards were elaborate creations of silk, mirrors, lace, embossed paper, shells, satin, floral scraps, locks of hair, dried ferns, feathers, powdered color glass, and flower petals. They were works of art, with hand-painted clusters of flowers and elegantly hand-printed verses that cost as much as $50. Some were well-done and others a bit extreme. The postal service in Britain finally refused to deliver “Love Office Telegraphs” whose “Office of Origin” was “The Heart” and were postmarked “Loveland,” together with checks and drafts made out by the “Bank of True Love,” which promised to pay “homage and never failing devotion of sincere affection” to the bearer. Both were considered too realistic-looking, according to the postal service.
Today the custom of sending valentines has been kept alive by children, who with their gaily decorated shoe boxes have added to the traditions surrounding the day. Some of them make games of giving cards, delivering them to doors and running away before discovered. Still others tie strings to them and teasingly jerk the cards from behind a bush just one step at a time in front of the curious recipient.
But through the years it was the homemade valentine that most often delighted the giver as well as the receiver. Whether it’s heavy construction paper with lopsided hearts or delicate lace with original verse, the homemade valentine evokes the day’s original spirit of remembering a special person. And it challenges the artist in anyone. Craft, art supply, and stationery stores will help you get started with paper doilies, colored tissue paper, gold-foil lace, and flower cutouts.