February 14

Valentine's Day is sweethearts' dayíŽwhen people in love express their affection for each other in gay and merry ways. It is a day for fantasy and caprice, and for the confession of tender emotions.

The affectionate message might be carried by a heart-shaped box of fancy chocolate candies, or by a bouquet of tulips tied with filmy red ribbon. It might be delicately written in curlicue letters on a flower covered card or poignantly stated in the modern manner. Then again, under the gay red wrapping, a young wife or sweetheart might find a book of poems, a perky lapel pin, or a tiny porcelain vase. But in whatever form, the message is the sameíŽ"Will you be my valentine?" Universities, high schools and community clubs usually sponsor a Sweethearts' Ball with decorations, refreshments and entertainment built around the traditional Valentine motifs--hearts and cupids armed with bow and arrow. And the boys and girls in the elementary schools center their party around the Valentine box. Early in the day each child deposits in the box his valentine greetings, carefully addressed to a classmate, and then anxiously awaits the last class period when the teacher draws the greetings out and reads the names of the recipients.

Valentines used to be reserved for young lovers, but nowadays grandparents, cousins, friends or even acquaintances of any age, take the occasion to express their affection through a small gift or a card from the huge assortment found at every stationery store, book shop and news stand. In whimsical verse Ogden Nash nostalgically recalls the "good old days" when everything was simpler:

"All you had to do was take a sheet of paper and draw a heart with an arrow through it carrying the words 'I love you', and sign it 'Guess who' and shove it under the front door of your only beloved and ring the bell and run like a rabbit.

One girl, one Valentine, and that was it.
But Valentine symbols have varies little through the ages.
Cupid, the Roman god of Love, is still the winged infant, poised to shoot his gold-tipped arrows into unsuspecting hearts. Feathery doves and lacy frills, reminiscent of  Victorian valentines, reappear each year alongside those of modern design.

And the schoolroom valentine box is not unlike the urns from which paired names were drawn at early Roman festivals. As a matter of fact, the custom of celebrating St. Valentine's Day can be traced to those festivals, called Lupercalia.  There were games and dancing and then each young man drew from an urn the name of the young maiden who would be his sweetheart for the coming year. February 15, the Roman date of the festival, thus became a day for young lovers.

After the introduction of Christianity, pagan cusoms were suppressed, but the festival continued, and in the 7th century it began to be called St. Valentine's Day. The origin of the name remains in doubt. Some historians contend the festival commemorates the death of a Christian martyr named valentine on February 14, in the year 270. Others link it to another St. Valentine who became the patron saint of lovers after he was imprisoned by Emperor Claudius for secretly marrying couples contrary to the Emperor's order. Still others say the name is a corruption of the French word galantin (a gallant or beau). And one further theory is that February 14 was chosen because birds traditionally began to mate on that day.

Whatever the origin, Valentine's Day has had a long and romantic history. The Roman conquerors carried the celebration to England, where pagan and Christian customs combined to form some of the enduring traditions. One was that the first person you saw on valentine's Day would be your valentine. We know the custom was well established in Shakespeare's time, for Ophelia wanted to be "betime" at Hamlet's window. She sang:

Good Morrow! 'tis St. Valentine's Day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine!

Somewhat later Pepys Diary, the rich source of details of 17th-century London, refers to drawing names for valentines and exchanging gifts with the person whose name was drawn.St. Valentine's Day with all of its colorful lore was taken to the New World by the English settlers and lost none of its romantic appeal through the journey. The deeply rooted superstitions continued, in fact, flowered, in the new environment. An extract from a young lady's diary written in 1754 describes some of the practices:

Last Friday was Valentine's Day and the night before I got five bay-leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle; and then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, we should be married before the year is out. But to make it sure, I boiled an egg hard and took out the yolk, and filled it salt; and when I went to bed ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote our lovers' names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our valentine.

Greeting cards, usually handmade by talented colonists, were works of art and beauty. Butterflies, flowering trees, even Cupid shooting tiny darts emerged when a clever craftsman snipped them from a folded piece of paper. Original verses appeared in carefully penned script on hand-painted cards, and for those unable to write their own verses a printed collection provided ready-made texts for any situation, with answers included. The lady could then accept or reject in a neat couplet.

Contrariwise, people in the gracious nineteenth century were often less sentimental and more practical than we imagine. Among the valentines in an exhibit at the City of New York Museum was one created by a young swain in 1845. On a lacy background he had printed:

"Go little card to Mary ever dear, Breathe the warm sigh and shed a tearíŽ" But sometime before Valentine's Day, that little corner of his heart reserved for Mary was occupied by a girl named Emma. Solution? He X'ed out "Mary," and inked in "Emma" and sped the card off to his new girl.

As the country developed there was less time for artistic expression, and commercially produced valentines began to appear. By the 1800s American manufacturers were turning out millions of befrilled valentines. The most popular ones had moving parts: little birds perched on a spring seemed to fly, doors and windows opened to reveal the sweet verse.Then, perhaps as an expression of increasing worldliness, the comic valentine, as garish and sly as the earlier ones had been beautiful, began to appear. Cartoons and grotesque drawings replaced the overly romantic ones, and parodies and sardonic rhymes were substituted for sentimental verses. They poked fun at the flirt, the dude, the arrogant, and even the shy. Signed just "Guess who" the game was to find out the identity of the sender.

Strangely enough, even these unromantic subjects used the traditional valentine symbols. A caricatured lady might have heart-shaped eyes and Cupid's bow lips, or a dove nesting in an outlandish hat.

Loveland, Colorado, known as a "sweetheart of a town in the Rockies." Each year as Valentine's Day approaches the Loveland post office has to recruit a staff of volunteers to help dispatch the 100,000 valentines sent from all over the United States for re-mailing.

When the valentines leave Loveland, in addition to an imprint of Loveland's romantic-sounding name they bear a picture of Cupid wearing a ten-gallon hat, a heart-shaped brand with the letter "L" and the following verse:

Cupid work your magic
From your secret mountain shirne,
And touch your wand of romance
To each lover's valentine.

The volunteers carefully hand stamp Cupid and the poetry on each envelope before sending it out as a valentine. The Loveland post office first adopted Cupid one frosty morning in 1947, when Ted Thompson, a motel owner, went to pick up his mail. That day he found the postmaster, elmer Ivers, thumbing through a handful of valentines and preparing to give them an ordinary Loveland cancellation.

When the postmaster told him that a larger number of valentines was arriving at Loveland for cancellation each year it gave Mr. Thompson an idea. Why not promote the town as Cupid's headquarters? The local newspaper ran the story, it was picked up by a national news service and the annual valentine rush began.

Cards now come from all fifty states and many foreign countries. Mr. Thompson has written thirteen different verses and altered Cupid's design on the cachet to suit changes in styles and sizes of envelopes. According to Loveland historians this western-style two-gun Cupid conforms to mythological tradition. They point out that in ancient times Cupid was often depicted with helmet and spear, indicating that even Mars, the god of war, acknowledged the superiority of love.

Loveland postal authorities have to emphasize, however, that they are strictly mailmen and not matchmakers. They once expressed regret at not being able to carry out one lady's request to "mail these valentines to nice gentlemen between the ages of 36 and 46."

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1998 American Resource Center