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St. Valentine's Day - February 14

I'll be your sweetheart, if you will be mine,

All of my life I'll be your Valentine ...*

* (These are the opening lines oi a song.)

It's here again, the day when boys and girls, sweethearts and lovers, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and even the office staff will exchange greetings of affection, undying love or satirical comment. And the quick, slick, modern way to do it is with a Valentine card.*

* (a Valentine card - Valentines as we know them first appeared in the 18th century, and were cards with drawings and verses made by the sender. In the 19th century shop-made valentines appeared, and became increasingly elaborately adorned with lace, real flowers, feathers, and moss. Valentine-sending has now declined, though it does revive from time to time.)

There are all kinds, to suit all tastes, the lush satin cushions, boxed and be-ribboned, the entwined hearts, gold arrows, roses, cupids, doggerel rhymes, sick sentiment and sickly sentimentality - it's all there. The publishers made sure it was there, as Mr Punch* complained, "three weeks in advance!"

* (Punch - the title of an English weekly humorous journal founded 1841; Punch is the hero of a traditional puppet play, a violent, pugnacious, hilarious rascal, hunchbacked, hook-nosed, gaily dressed, who uses a stout cudgel to overcome all his enemies in succession.)

In his magazine, Punch, as long ago as 1880 he pointed out that no sooner was the avalanche of Christmas cards swept away than the publishers began to fill the shops with their novel valentines, full of "Hearts and Darts, Loves and Doves and Floating Fays and Flowers".

It must have been one of these cards which Charles Dickens describes in Pickwick Papers. It was "a highly coloured representation of a couple of human hearts skewered together with an arrow, cooking before a cheerful fire" and "superintending the cooking" was a "highly indelicate young gentleman in a pair of wings and nothing else".


In the last century, sweethearts of both sexes would spend hours fashioning a home-made card or present. The results of some of those painstaking efforts are still preserved in museums. Lace, ribbon, wild flowers, coloured paper, feathers and shells, all were brought into use. If the aspiring (or perspiring) lover had difficulty in thinking up a message or rhyme there was,help at hand. He could dip into The Quiver of Love or St. Valentine's Sentimental Writer; these books giving varied selections to suit everyone's choice. Sam Weller, of Pickwick Papers fame,* took an hour and a half to write his "Valentine", with much blotting and crossing out and warnings from his father not to descend to poetry.

* (Sam Weller, of Pickwick Papers fame, and the quotation above, are both references to chapter XXXIII of Charles Dickens' novel; Sam Weller and his father mixed up "v" and "w", they pronounced wary, wicious, wictim, walentine and ven, vy, vether.)

The first Valentine of all was a bishop, a Christian martyr, who before he was put to death by the Romans sent a note of friendship to his jailer's blind daughter.

The Christian Church took for his saint's day February 14, the date of an old pagan festival when young Roman maidens threw decorated love missives into an urn to be drawn out by their boy friends.

This idea of a lottery was noted in 17th century England by a French writer who described how the guests of both sexes drew lots for partners by writing down names on pieces of paper. "It is all the rage," he wrote.

But apparently to bring the game into a family and friendly atmosphere one could withdraw from the situation by paying a forfeit, usually a pair of gloves.

One of the older versions of a well-known rhyme gives the same picture:

 The rose is red, the violets are blue, 
 The honey's sweet and so are you. 
 Thou art my love and I am thine. 
 I drew thee to my Valentine. 
 The lot was cast and then I drew
 And fortune said it should be you.

Comic valentines are also traditional. The habit of sending gifts is dying out, which must be disappointing for the manufacturers, who nevertheless still hopefully dish out presents for Valentine's Day in an attempt to cash in. And the demand for valentines is increasing. According to one manufacturer, an estimated 30 million cards will have been sent by January, 14 - and not all cheap stuff, either.

"Our cards cost from 6d to 15s 6d*," he says, but "ardent youngsters" want to pay more." They can pay more. I saw a red satin heart-shaped cushion enthroning a "pearl" necklace and earrings for 25s. Another, in velvet bordered with gold lace, topped with a gilt leaf brooch, was 21s (and if anyone buys them ... well, it must be love!).

* (6d to 15s 6d - abbreviations d and s are no longer used in Britain, since on 15 February 1971 decimal currency was introduced in the United Kingdom.)

There are all kinds:

The sick joke - reclining lady on the front, and inside she will "kick you in the ear".

The satirical - "You are charming, witty, intelligent, etc.", and "if you believe all this you must be ..." - inside the card you find an animated cuckoo clock.

And the take-off of the sentimental - "Here's the key, to my heart ... use it before I change the lock."

And the attempts to send a serious message without being too sickly, ending with variations of "mine" and "thine" and "Valentine".

So in the 20th century, when there are no longer any bars to communication between the sexes, the love missives of an older, slower time, edged carefully over the counters by the publishers and shopkeepers, still surge through the letter boxes.

(Daily Worker)

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