St. Valentine’s Day And It’s Customs (1874)

Lupercalia and St Valentine's DayST. VALENTINE’S DAY AND ITS CUSTOMS.

The origin of the customs in connection with St. Valentine’s Day is somewhat obscure. St. Valentine himself, it is certain, has nothing whatever to do with them beyond his day being used for their observance. He was a priest of Rome, in the third century, who was barbarously martyred, being first beaten with clubs and then beheaded.

Mr. Douce, in his “Illustrations of Shakespeare,” says: “It was the practice of ancient Rome, during the greater part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts of Pan and Juno, whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis and Februlla.

On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed.

The pastors of the early Christian Church, who by every possible means endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some modifications of their forms, substituted in the present instance the names of particular saints for those of women; and, as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine’s day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred at nearly the same time. This is, in fact, the opinion of a learned and rational compiler of the ‘Lives of the Saints’, the Rev. Alban Butler.”

It would seem, however, that it was utterly impossible to extirpate altogether a ceremony to which common people had been accustomed—a fact which it were easy to prove in tracing the origin of various other popular superstitions. And, accordingly, the outline of the ancient ceremonies was preserved, but modified by some adaptation to the Christian system.

It is reasonable to suppose that the above practice of choosing mates would gradually become reciprocal in the sexes, and that persons so chosen would be called valentines from the day on which the ceremony took place.” By the common people it was supposed that the first unmarried person of the other sex who was met on the morning of the day was the destined husband or wife, and with this was also connected the superstition that on this day birds choose their mates. The poet Gay makes a rural dame remark:—

“Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind

Their paramours with mutual chirping find,

I early rose jnst at the break of day,

Before the sun had chased the stars away;

A-field I went, amid the morning dew,

To milk my kine (for so should house wives do).

The first I spied, and the first swain we see,

In spite of fortune shall our true love be.”

In a Buckinghamshire village, to the present day, a young person will address the first one he or she meets of the opposite sex with these words :—

“Good morrow to you, Valentine,

First ’tis yours and then ’tis mine,

I’ll thank you for a Valentine.’

St. Valentine’s Day is alluded to by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Lydgate (who died 1440), Drayton, and many of the old poets.

Of the old customs, the chief observance consisted in the drawing of lots. Misson, who lived in the early part of last century, thus describes it:—On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors get together; each writes their own or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up and draw by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’, so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man whom she calls hers.

By this means each has two valentines; but the man sticks faster to the valentine that has fallen to him, than to the valentine to whom he has fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company iuto so many couples; the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.”

Pepys, who lived in the reign of Charles II., tells us in his Diary that both married and single men were liable to be chosen as valentines, and that a present was invariably given to the choosing party.

Under the date of February 14th, 1667, he records as follows: “This morning came up to my wife’s bedside (I being up dressing myself), little Will Mercer, to be her valentine, and brought her name written upon blue paper in gold letters, done by himself, very pretty; and we were both well pleased with it. But I am also this year my wife’s valentine, and it will cost mo £5; but that I must have laid out had we not been valentines.” Speaking afterwards of the jewels of the celebrated Miss Stuart, who became Duchess of Richmond, he writes: “The Duke of Tork being once her valentine did give her a Jewel of about £800 j and my Lord Mandeville, her valentine this year, a ring of about £300.”

At the present time the practice of presenting gifts on Valentine’s Day is still kept up, and was formerly an universal English custom, and is now reviving. From a recently published volume, entitled the Norfolk Garland, we learn :—

It is customary, at Norwich, for valentines to be received, not on the 14th of February, as in other districts, but on the evening of the 13th, St. Valentine’s Eve. Another peculiar feature connected with this festival in Norfolk is, that the valentine, instead of being an ornamental billet-doux, is some article of intrinsic value. The Norwich papers, for some two or three weeks prior to St. Valentine’s Day, contain a number of advertisements, attracting attention to goods that are declared suitable for valentine presents. Life-size walking-dolls, performing acrobats, clock-work trains, vases, lustres, work-boxes, desks, clocks and watches, jewellery and electro-plated goods of every kind; shawls and mantles, furs and muslins, dressing bags and albums, attractive gift-books, all sorts of fancy articles, and even a guinea knifecleaner have been advertised as suitable for valentine presents. Tradesmen anxiously obtain all kinds of novelties for the season, and many of the shops most noted for variety of their stocks are literally besieged by customers on Valentine’s Eve.

The mode of delivering these valentines is also peculiar. The parcel containing the valentine is placed on the door-step on Valentine’s Eve, and a thundering rap being given at the door, the messenger takes to his heels, and is off instantly. Those in the house knowing well enough the purpose of such an announcing rap, quickly fetch in the various treasures. When there is a young family the raps are likely to be frequent, and the juveniles get into a perfect furore of excitement on such evenings.

In Devonshire, we are told, the peasants believe that if they go to the porch of the church, and wait until twelve o’clock on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, with a quantity of hemp-seed in their hands, and at the time above-mentioned, scatter the seed on either side, repeating these lines:


“Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow,

She (or he) that will my true love he,

Come rako the hempseed after me.”


his or her true love will appear behind, in the act of raking up the seed just sown, in a winding sheet.

My antiquarian friend Mr. Thomas Ratcliffe kindly furnishes me with the following notes on customs that have almost died out, though they were common enough fifty or sixty years ago in Derbyshire. Burns, in his Tain Glen, mentions the first of the customs. The maiden sings:— “Yestreen at the valentine dealing, My heart to my mow gi’ed a sten, For thrico I drew ane without failing, And tbrice it was written Tam Glen.”

Valentine Dealing.—Each young woman in the house would procure several slips of paper, and write upon them the names of the young men they knew, or those they had a preference for. The Blips when ready were then put into a boot or a shoe (a man’s), or else into a handy hat, and then shaken up. Then each lassie put in her hand and drew a slip, which she read and retained until everyone had drawn. The slips were then put back, and the drawing done over again. This was done three times. If a girl drew the same slip thrice, she was sure to be married in a short time, and to a person of the same name as that which was written upon the thrice-drawn slip.

Looking Through The Keyhole.—In the early morn of Saint Valentine, young women would look through the keyhole of the house door. If they saw only a single object or person, they certainly would go alone all that year. If they saw two or more objects or persons they would be sure to have a sweetheart, and that right soon; but if fortune so favoured them that by chance they saw a cock and a hen, they might be quite certain of being married before the year was out.

Sweeping The Girls was another old Derbyshire custom. If a girl did not have a kiss, or if her sweetheart did not come to see her early on this morning, it was because she was dusty; and therefore it was needful that she should be well swept with a broom, and then equally well kissed by the young men of the house, and those living near, who used to go round to their intimate friends’ houses to perform this custom.

The valentines of to-day are varied; some costly, resplendent with gold and silver and the hues of the rainbow, redolent with the sweetest of perfumes, and with verses and pictures imparting the sender’s deepest affection, and others expressive of the forwarder’s contempt for the recipient.

The latter are a class which until recently were unknown; in fact both are of modern innovation. When the custom of sending valentines originated it was usual to send courteous professions of attachment; we have examples given of valentines of the last century in Notes and Queries for February 12, 1870, as follows :—No. I. On the outside of this valentine, encircling a heart, which is broken up on unfolding the letter:—

“Dear love, this Heart, which you behold.

Will break when you these leaves unfold;

l mine;

Even so my Heart, with lore-sick pain

Sore wounded is, and breaks in twain.”

In the interior of the valentine, surrounding a medley of Cupid with his bow, a bleeding heart pierced with his arrow, hearts single and hearts joined together, a sun, moon, and stars, roses, myrtle, and forget-me-nots, is the following:—

“My dearest dear, and sweet divine,

I’ve pictured here your heart and D

But Cupid with his fatal Dart,

Hath wounded deep my tender heart;

And hath betwixt us set a Cross,

Which makes me so lament my loss;

But I’m in hopes, when this is gone,

That both our Hearts will join in One, “Tou are the Girl and only Maid,

That hath my tender Heart betray’d!

Nor ever will my Heart have Ease

Untill our Hearts are joined like these.

If you refuse to be my Wife

It will bereave me of my Life.

Pale Death at last must stand my Friend,

And bring the Sorrows to an End

Of your true lover, Valentine and Friend.”

T. Cowlky, Feb. 14, 1785.On tho back (or address side) of the valentine we read:—

“To thee I write sweet Turtle-Dove,

And send this Moral of my Love.

The powers of envy can’t pretend

To say I have false Stories penn’d.”

No. II. On the outside of the valentine, enclosing a heart which breaks upon the unfolding of the letter, the same sentiment is expressed as in the previous instance, via.:—

“This Heart, my Dear, as you behold,

Will break as you these Leaves unfold:

Even so my heart with Love-sick Fain

Sore wounded as it breaks in twain.”

In the interior of the valentine, surrounded by hearts, birds and flowers :—

“0 Virgin fair! O Nymph divine P

My Life, my Love, my Heart is thine.

A Heart I had which once was free;

My roving Heart can never rest,

Till it finds room in your sweet Breast.

A lover true, a Friend sincere,

Is to be priz’d a Thing most rare.

Perhaps you think I am too bold

Because I have not Store of Gold:

For if I had you should have part,

But as I havn’t, you have my Heart.”

“When this you see pray think of mo,

And bear me in your mind.

I am not like the Weather-Cock

To change with every Wind.


Thos. Pbeston.”


No. III. On a sheet of white paper, very elaborately and tastefully cut out:—

“Some draw Valentines by Lot,

Some draw those that they love not;

But all draw you, whom I love best,

And choose you from among the rest.

The Ring is round, and hath no End,

And this I send to you, my Friend?


And if yon take it in good part,

I shall be glad with all my Heart.

But if yon do these Lines refuse,

This Paper bnrn, pray me excuse.

Excuse me now for being so bold,

I should have wrote your name in Gold;

But Gold was scarce, as you may think,

Which made me write your Name in Ink.

Thos. Groom. Ann Jebb.”


In this valentine (No. III.) a gold ring was conveyed, as shown by stitches in the paper. But Miss Jebb, to whom all these valentines were sent, was proof against the protestations of Messrs. Cowley, Preston, and Groom, and in 1788 married Mr. Nnnnerly, and became grandmother of one of the “noble six hundred” of the Balaclava charge, who, on their retiring, bore back to safety one of his wounded officers.

Hull. William Andrews.

Source: The Yorkshire Magazine, 1874

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