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The history of St. Valentine's day takes place mostly in the past. Like most histories, it contains a lot of dates and places. It also contains a lot of St. Valentines which complicates the matter considerably.
The most likely candidate for the post (out of some 30-odd St. Valentines listed in The Biographical Dictionary of Saints) is one M. Valentine. He was a Roman priest who loved brotherhood (and sisterhood), but unfortunately he lost his head over the whole matter on February 14 in either 269 or 278 A.D., depending on what book you look it up in. This explains why he became a martyr and did not die a natural death.
Another possibility for the origin of St. Valentine's day is proposed by the etymologists, who gave up their study of insects long enough to put the blame on the French (the race most likely to be concerned with things like St. Valentine's day). They claim that the work "galantin,' meaning "lover of women," was pronounced "valentine." Apparently realizing that this galantine study was a good deal, the French inaugurated a St. Galantine's day. If you don't understand how this turned into St. Valentine's day you obviously have never heard a Frenchman talk fast.
. . . For the Birds
After the French made St. Valentine's day a success by all this fast talk (this is where the expression "a fast line" comes from), a couple of ornithologists got mad at the etymologists for grabbing all the publicity with their theory. These ornithologists stopped examining each other's eyes long enough to start a whispering campaign claiming that February 14 marked the first day that the birds began to mate.
You wouldn't think any intelligent person could fall for this patent fabrication, by Chancer, Shakespeare, and John Gay all make naive references to this explanation. Chancer typifies their common ignorance in his "Parliament of Foules" with the lines:
"For this was on St. Valentine's day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."
Unlike Christmas cards, which everyone knows were instigated by a Swiss job printer in 1856 to tide him over the slack season, Valentine's day cards can be traced back to historical origins. Specifically, they come from the ancient Roman Feast of the Lupercalia where youth men and women put cards with their names on them into a large box, and couples were paired by chance drawings. The pairings lasted all year, which clearly shows that the Romans knew how to make more of a good thing than we do now.
According to Pepys . . .
If was up to Samuel Pepys, however, first to record a more contemporary view of this holiday. Sam celebrated the day in 1663 with the following entry in his diary:
"Here Mrs. The, shewed me my name upon her breast as her Valentine, which will cost me 20s."
The Hallmark Card Company soon underbid Mrs. The. and has since cornered the market.
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