Friday, 15 February 2008

St Valentine's

St Valentine's Day had a bit of a naughty beginning, quite dissimilar to our romantic view of it. It's roots were in pagan Rome: during the month long Lupercalia festival the names of willing young women were written down and picked out at random by virile young men to be their companion throughout the time of orgy.

The Church disapproved of course and nominated a day and the acceptable face of a saint – Valentine – in the hope that he and not courtesans became the centre of attention. This was not an immediate success because then, as now, good times are not surrendered lightly: the young men and women continued to choose a real life Valentine with whom there was still fun and frolics.

Over time the Church did manage to steer the debauched festival into more fitting game of mystery and romance. Around the 15th century this took the form of a simple letters written to the partner of ones choice, with whom one hoped to perhaps eventually marry.

However, intrigue or the practical Valentine joke was often indulged as happened in Gaskell's novel, Cranford, with such sorry conequences. There were all sorts of ways to find a Valentine: in Samuel Pepys time – mid 1600's – the first man seen by a woman that morning became her Valentine, and she his, so a wise woman timed her outings so that she didn't bump into the dolt next door.

A wealthy Valentine was a very good catch because he would bring presents of gloves or stockings or, if he were very rich, jewellery. But letters, and names written on pieces of paper, were still common nevertheless. In the 17th century Valentines were often chosen by the recipient based on the skill of letter they wrote: it might be a sentimental poem, a few lines of flowery description or a painted heart.

These home-made 'letters' became more complex by the Victorian period: glue and scissors were employed to produce nifty decoupage or watercoloured pictures painted. Unfortunately those not blessed with any artistic ability were at a clear disadvantage.

The ever enterprising and commercially minded Victorians hit upon the bought Valentine card: embossing, patterns and perforations were used, with gold and silver gilding and love knots. As time went on these became works of sentimental and romantic art, birds, flowers, baskets, ribbons, lace, painted satin panels and cupids were favourite decorations with mottoes, couplets and rhymes added.

The cards became a roaring success; according to the General Post Office archives over 200,000 Valentine letters and cards were sent by post in 1825, which by 1850 had grown to 800,000. But mass production and OT decoration – three dimensional cards steeped in perfume, or boxed ones decorated with moss and feathers – caused these cards to lose their charm and the popularity of the Valentine card waned.

A revival (if for no other reason but to boost Post Office coffers) was needed: step in our hero, Rex Whistler. This talented artist designed the first St Valentine's telegram in glorious glittering colour and a new wave of sending St Valentine verses was begun.

I can remember the teenage angst that was palpable leading up to 14th February: if you received one it would accompany you to school and either be gloated over or discreetly dropped by 'accident' out of the satchel. Of course if you didn't get one you pretended the post hadn't been delivered before you left for school and hoped that by the next day the subject would be relegated to yesterday's news.

I have to say that I do think commercialism has rather overtaken the fun and charm of St Valentine's now: mark you, I have no objection to a bunch of flowers or (preferably and) a nice meal out from Best Beloved who, admittedly, does often need a little jog in the romance stakes.

But the sweetest of cards I ever received were those hand made ones that my children proudly presented to me after school. Alright, they weren’t anonymous and they were oddly shaped and strangely coloured, but I think making the cards taught them that not everything needs to be bought and that we all need little tokens of love now and then: so long live St Valentine's Day.


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