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Sunday, 14 February 2016

Wolf Gods and Love Tokens: Customs and Traditions of Saint Valentine's Day

The 14th February is better known as 'St Valentine's Day' and it is without question the most popular day of the year for romance.

The custom of sending anonymous greeting cards to ones sweetheart or 'Valentine' is as popular as ever, yet the St Valentine's Day we know today actually evolved from the ancient Roman festival of 'Lupercalia', part of which was the choosing of sexual partners for the coming year by the drawing of lots. The names of all the eligible girls were placed in a vessel dedicated to the god 'Lupercus', and the boys each in turn pulled out a name to see whom fate had chosen for them.

Wolf God - Lupercus
'The Valentine Lottery' as it later became known experienced over the centuries ebbs and flows of popularity and unexpectedly became fashionable once again in the early Victorian era as a party game.

If a girl was courting but unlucky enough not to receive a Valentine greeting from her sweetheart today she would be deemed as 'Dusty' and therefore had to undergo the indignity of being swept down by either her Mother or companions with a broomstick or wisp of straw. The idea was to create as much embarrassment to the 'dusty victim' as possible as she then had to cast lots with the other girls in the usual manner.

St Valentine's Day in Dorset

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of St Valentine's Day in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-

"Amongst my Dorset notes for this day I find one from the Illustrated London News in February, 1880, which states that on St. Valentine's day the maids suspend in the kitchen a nosegay of early flowers tied up with a "true-lover's knot" of blue ribbon.  It is not stated, however, what was the object or purpose of this act; though it is not difficult, I think, to believe that it indicated some manifestation or expression connected with the young women's attitude towards those subjects to which the lover's Saint's day is dedicated.

Somewhat akin to this, perhaps, is the belief that it is unlucky if a male is not the first visitor that comes to the house on St. Valentine's Day.
Formerly in Dorsetshire, as elsewhere, large numbers of " valentines " were exchanged between young people, a practice to which this day gave special licence ; some of these, especially those sent in ridicule, being both vulgar and wanting in good taste. A great improvement has, however, set in in late years with regard to this; and now the custom is mostly confined in regard to " valentines " to the exchange or sending of presents of a more useful or valuable nature.
Hone, in his Every-Day Book, vol. i, p. 118, records a custom which prevailed many years since in the West of England, and may well, therefore, be known in Dorsetshire, although I am not myself personally acquainted with it: —

" Three single young men went out together before daylight on St. Valentine's Day, with a clapnet to catch an old owl and two sparrows in a neighbouring barn. If they were successful and could bring the birds to the inn without injury before the females of the house had risen they were rewarded by the hostess with three pots of purl in honour of St. Valentine, and enjoyed the privilege of demanding at any house in the neighbourhood a similar boon. This was done, it is said, as an emblem that the owl, being the bird of wisdom, could influence the feathered race to enter the net of love as mates on that day, whereon both single lads and maidens should be reminded that happiness could alone be secured by an early union."
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days February 14th 1864, details the traditions of St. Valentine's Day.
Valentine's Day is now almost everywhere a much degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting merely of the sending of jocular anonymous letters to parties whom one wishes to quiz, and this confined very much to the humbler classes. The approach of the day is now heralded by the appearance in the print-sellers' shop windows of vast numbers of missives calculated for use on this occasion, each generally consisting of a single sheet of post paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below. More rarely, the print is of a sentimental kind, such as a view of Hymen's altar, with a pair undergoing initiation into wedded happiness before it, while Cupid flutters above, and hearts transfixed with his darts decorate the corners. Maid-servants and young fellows interchange such epistles with each other on the 14th of February, no doubt conceiving that the joke is amazingly good: and, generally, the newspapers do not fail to record that the London postmen delivered so many hundred thousand more letters on that day than they do in general. Such is nearly the whole extent of the observances now peculiar to St. Valentine's Day.

At no remote period it was very different. Ridiculous letters were unknown: and, if letters of any kind were sent, they contained only a courteous profession of attachment from some young man to some young maiden, honeyed with a few compliments to her various perfections, and expressive of a hope that his love might meet with return. But the true proper ceremony of St. Valentine's Day was the drawing of a kind of lottery, followed by ceremonies not much unlike what is generally called the game of forfeits. Misson, a learned traveller, of the early part of the last century, gives apparently a correct account of the principal ceremonial of the day.
'On the eve of St. Valentine's Day,' he says, '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 true 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 is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into 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.'

In that curious record of domestic life in England in the reign of Charles II, Pepu's Diary, we find some notable illustrations of this old custom. It appears that married and single were then alike liable to be chosen as a valentine, and that a present was invariably and necessarily given to the choosing party. Mr. Pepys enters in his diary, on Valentine's Day, 1667: '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 me £5: but that I must have laid out if we had not been valentines.' Two days after, he adds:

'I find that Mrs. Pierce's little girl is my valentine, she having drawn me: which I was not sorry for, it easing me of something more that I must have given to others. But here I do first observe the fashion of drawing mottoes as well as names, so that Pierce, who drew my wife, did draw also a motto, and this girl drew another for me. What mine was. I forget: but my wife's was "Most courteous and most fair," which, as it maybe used, or an anagram upon each name, might be very pretty.'

Noticing, soon afterwards, the jewels of the celebrated Miss Stuart, who became Duchess of Richmond, he says: 'The Duke of York, being once her valentine, did give her a jewel of about £800: and my Lord Mandeville, her valentine this year, a ring of about £300.' These presents were undoubtedly given in order to relieve the obligation under which the being drawn as valentines had placed the donors. In February 1668, Pepys notes as follows:

'This evening my wife did with great pleasure shew me her stock of jewels, increased by the ring she hath made lately, as my valentine's gift this year, a Turkey-stone set with diamonds. With this, and what she had, she reckons that she hath above one hundred and fifty pounds' worth of jewels of one kind or other: and I am glad of it, for it is fit the wretch should have something to content herself with.'

The reader will understand wretch to be used as a term of endearment. Notwithstanding the practice of relieving, there seems to have been a disposition to believe that the person drawn as a valentine had some considerable likelihood of becoming the associate of the party in wedlock. At least, we may suppose that this idea would be gladly and easily arrived at, where the party so drawn was at all eligible from other considerations. There was, it appears, a prevalent notion amongst the common people, that this was the day on which the birds selected their mates. They seem to have imagined that an influence was inherent in the day, which rendered in some degree binding the lot or chance by which any youth or maid was now led to fix his attention on a person of the opposite sex. It was supposed, for instance, that the first unmarried person of the other sex whom one met on St. Valentine's morning in walking abroad, was a destined wife or a destined husband. Thus Gay makes a rural dame remark:

        'Last Valentine, the day when binds of kind
        Their paramours with mutual chirping', find,
        I early rose just at the break of day,
        Before the sun had chased the stars away:
        A-field I went, amid the morning clew,
        To milk my kine (for so should housewives do).
        Thee first I spied—and the first swain we see,
        In spite of Fortune shall our true love be.'

A forward Miss in the Connoisseur, a series of essays published in 1751-6, thus adverts to other notions with respect to the day:

'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, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it with 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. Would you think it?—Mr. Blossom was my man. I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house: for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world.'

St. Valentine's Day is alluded to by Shakspeare and by Chaucer, and also by the poet Lydgate (who died in 1440). One of the earliest known writers of valentines, or poetical amorous addresses for this day, was Charles Duke of Orleans, who was taken at the battle of Agincourt. Drayton, a poet of Shakspeare's time, full of great but almost unknown beauties, wrote thus charmingly:

            TO HIS VALENTINE

            'Muse, bid the morn awake,
            Sad winter now declines,
            Each bird cloth choose a mate,
            This day's St. Valentine's :
            For that good bishop's sake
            Get up, and let us see,
            What beauty it shall be
            That fortune us assigns.

            But lo! in happy hour,
            The place wherein she lies,
            In yonder climbing tower
            Gilt by the glittering rise;
            Oh, Jove! that in a shower,
            As once that thunder did,
            When he in drops lay hid,
            That I could her surprise!

            Her canopy I'll draw,
            With spangled plumes bedight,
            No mortal ever saw
            So ravishing a sight:
            That it the gods might awe,
            And powerfully transpierce
            The globy universe,
            Out-shooting every light.

            My lips I'll softly lay
            Upon her heavenly cheek,
            Dyed like the dawning day,
            As polish'd ivory sleek:
            And in her ear I'll say,
            "Oh thou bright morning-star
            'Tis I that come so far,
            My valentine to seek."

            Each little bird, this title,
            Doth choose her loved peer,
            Which constantly abide
            In wedlock all the year,
            As nature is their guide:
            So may we two be true
            This year, nor change for new,
            As turtles coupled were.

            Let's laugh at them that choose
            Their valentines by lot:
            To wear their names that use,
            Whom icily they have got.
            Such poor choice we refuse,
            Saint Valentine befriend;
            We thus this morn may spend,
            Else, Muse, awake her not'

Donne, another poet of the same age, remarkable for rich though scattered beauties, writes an epithalamium on the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to Frederick Count Palatine of the Rhine—the marriage which gave the present royal family to the throne--and which took place on St. Valentine's Day, 1614. The opening is fine

            'Hail, Bishop Valentine! whose day this is:
            All the air is thy diocese,
            And all the chirping choristers
            And other birds are thy parishioners:
            Thou marryest every year
            The lyric lark and the grave whispering dove:
            The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
            The household bird with the red stomacher:
            Thou mak'st the blackbird speed as soon
            As cloth the goldfinch or the halcyon--
            This day more cheerfully than ever shine,
            This day which might inflame thyself, old Valentine!'

The origin of these peculiar observances of St. Valentine's Day is a subject of some obscurity. The saint himself, who was a priest of Rome, martyred in the third century, seems to have had nothing to do with the matter, beyond the accident of his day being used for the purpose. Mr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakspeare, says:

'It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour 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 commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the 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 nearly at the same time.

This is, in part, the opinion of a learned and rational compiler of the Lives of the Saints, the Rev. Alban Butler.

It should seem, however, that it was utterly impossible to extirpate altogether any ceremony to which the common people had been much 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 all persons so chosen would be called Valentines, from the day on which the ceremony took place.'

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