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Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
St. Valentine's Day


"Yestreen at the valentines' dealing
My heart to my mou' gied a sten,
For thrice I drew ane without failing,
And thrice it was written—Tarn Glent"

The practice to which these well-known lines of Burns refer has clean passed away. It was common enough when they were written—now one hundred years ago—and in. rural districts of Scotland was probably universal. In these districts it has lingered longest; and there must be many old or elderly persons amongst us who remember in their youth taking part in the practice. The century, when it was still among the "thirties," looked with no disfavour upon the rustic merriment that attended a "valentines' dealing." But its own inventions and scientific discoveries, its projects and its anticipations, have had the effect of breaking its connection with many a traditional and time-honoured institution, of which the great annual lovers' festival of St Valentine's Eve was one. Nobody keeps vigil for the 14th of February now. The festival has gone even more clean and completely than its more antiquated but not more joyous sister institutions of Hallowe'en and Hogmanay. The favourite sports and customs of this inventive nineteenth century are almost entirely those of its own creation. It has broken with the mirth and sociality of the past more effectually than any of its predecessors.

It was the custom in every rustic community when Scotland was still ancient—that is, less than a century ago—for one or more companies of young unmarried folks of both sexes to meet together on St Valentine's Eve, in the house of one or other of their more socially-inclined neighbours, for the purpose of trying the award of fate in a drawing of valentines. The arrangements for the frolic were of the simplest Yet they were sufficiently effective to secure a gathering. Then, at least, it was true that in the spring the young folks' fancy "lightly turned to thoughts of love." It was only necessary to provide two bags and a quantity of tickets bearing the names of eligible individuals well known in the community. The bachelors of the rustic gathering drew from the bag containing the female names, while the maids drew from that which held the names of the bachelors. At some assemblies the names were limited to the individuals constituting the company; but as it seldom happened that the company was equally composed of members of both sexes, and as it was necessary for the proper observance of the festival that each person should be provided with a mate, it was not unusual to add the names of absentees. Some of the absentees were—from advanced age, or evil temper, or bodily deformity or defect—anything but desirable partners: a circumstance which, of course, heightened the interest of the drawing, and gave greater variety to the blind awards of the "poke" of destiny. Delight or dissatisfaction rarely failed to show itself in the countenances of the drawers, even when they sought to conceal the name on the ticket. One of two things could be inferred from the concealment of a name that had been drawn —either that fate's award was the object of special dislike or even aversion, or was the object of sincere but secret affection. It was usual to make appeal to the decision of the lot three times (they did the same in the "luggie" ceremonial at Hallowe'en) for better assurance of the will of fate; and his or her lot was, of course, fixed beyond all alteration who drew—as did Tarn Glen's sweetheart—the one name "thrice without failing." As a rule, the result of each person's drawing was known to the rest; and it occasionally happened that the bashfulness of young people, quite prepared to become mutual lovers, was overcome by the decision of St Valentine, and that in this way real engagements were formed which by and by matured into matrimony. Married people, especially wives, belonging to the neighbourhood, attended those gatherings, and showed, as passive but by no means silent spectators, an interest in the awards of the love-lottery as keen as that of the most active of the young folks for whose behoof the day of St Valentine had been appointed. They encouraged the bashful girl and bantered the conceited bachelor, and generally kept the fun and excitement from flagging often till a late hour of the night. When the lottery was at last over, and some were happy, while some were disappointed, and all were excited, the homely entertainment of a few "girdle" cakes and a

"twalpenny's worth o nappy
Wad mak' the bodies unco happy.*'

They became hilarious, and sang and danced it off to the late long hour, heedless of the scowl of the Kirk, which was (neither divinely nor humanly) inimical to late hours, and expressly hostile to what it called promiscuous dancing.

This resort to lot and good St Valentine for a lover was by no means confined to rustic communities in Scotland. It was known and practised in England, and in several countries on the Continent, in mediaeval times, and was very much in vogue among people of rank and riches in the 15th and 16th centuries. It seems to have been usual then for the lovers to exchange presents, and to maintain a kind of chivalrous bearing towards each other, of a nature which has been compared to the relation that existed between a knight of romance and his ladye-love, for at least one year—that is, till St Valentine permitted and provided a change. In the reign of the Merry Monarch it would seem from the Diary of that prince of tattlers, Mr Pepys, that married people could take part in the celebrations of St Valentine's Eve, and that the custom of presenting gifts had sunk, through inability or refusal to accept the award of the Saint, into the payment of forfeits—similar to the mail which spinsters, if they choose, may, in certain circumstances, levy on a 29th of February, only much costlier.

The practice of sending "valentine" letters by post was a later feature of the celebration of St Valentine's Day. It has not yet entirely disappeared, but every twelvemonth there is all over the country, in regions where the custom lingers, a sensible diminution in the number of those fragrant billets. Whilom they were of aggregate bulk enough to break the postman's back; now he can carry them in the pocket of his vest, if the Government allow him one. Serving maids and men, but especially the former, in our larger towns, and a fraction of the peasantry inhabiting the more forlorn parishes, are the modern representatives—few in number—of those ancient lovers who yearly soughtout and saluted their mates by favour of the post. Their missives, though calling in the art of both painter and poet, had yet a certain monotony of features which, for want of development, helped, we think, in some measure to put an end to the custom. The painter or designer confined himself to the representation of a pair of genteel lovers; a fat Cupid or two, drawing vigorous bows; and the never-failing emblem of a brace of bleeding hearts, pitifully pinned together. Roses filled the foreground, and a church-spire rose up as a signal of hope and help in the rear. The poet's part of the work was to condense as much sweet sentiment into two or four lines of verse as— with the aid of the united Nine, no doubt—he could possibly manage.

"The rose is red, the violet's blue,
Honey's sweet, and so are you!"

This was to the point without being epigrammatic. Or in a less luscious and direct, but more tender and somewhat forgetful strain—

"Look on those eyes that ever gaze
With truth and love on thine,
The voice that wearies not in praise
Of thee, my valentine."

("He goes but to see a voice which he heard," says Peter Quince in the play!) We quote from a dainty but frail old print, with a deep border of paper lace-work, and a thin garland of roses and violets, enclosing the portrait of a languishing young Romeo-Adonis, whose eyes may be truthful and loving, but whose voice is scarcely visible. There can be no doubt that many an honest, simple-minded rustic, whose heart was seriously affected, believed in the institution and efficacy of the postal valentine. The male specimen— always the more lavish—has been known to expend five shillings, or even more, upon the print which best expressed, his fears and hopes, his general unworthiness, and his particular wishes; painfully to smear in the letters of his own name and those of his charmer; and with much sheep-stealing-like secrecy to commit the missive to the hands of the waylaid postman. Happy if in return he received a sixpenny leaf from his Dulcinea ! to take odd peeps at it among the February furrows, and at last to consign it to the "locker" of his kist as a valuable treasure scarcely inferior to his whole year's fee. Ridiculous and vulgar valentines came in among all this sweetly sentimental sort, and hastened that decay of the postal valentine which the monotony of the artists' imagery had already commenced. The Christmas card—a formidable rival, capable of expansive development, and of universal use throughout Christendie—crept rapidly into favour, and the valentine was doomed. It may be that, unless the card keep clear of the threatening taint of vulgarity, its doom may follow that of the valentine.

"Who was St Valentine?" is a question often asked and often unanswered. Why he was selected to be the patron saint of youthful lovers.is the more difficult query to answer. That he was a Christian priest who suffered martyrdom in pagan Rome, in the second or third century of our era, is generally believed; and we have the further information that he was killed with clubs and then decapitated, and that his death occurred some time in February. It was, I think, Douce in his "Illustrations of Shakespeare" that first connected the "valentines' dealing" with a very similar feature of the old Roman festival of the Lupercal, held in the middle of February. It has been suggested that the Church, being unable to abolish the popular old pagan custom of the Lupercalian games, contrived (suo more) to give them a Christian aspect by placing them under the presidency of a saint to whom a day in mid-February was dedicated. The Church had no choice; Valentine was the only saint in its calendar associated with February. Similarly the Scandinavian celebration of Yule was converted into the religious institution of Christmas.

It is out of place here to do more than refer to the many allusions to St Valentine's Day and its usages which are to be found in the pages of poet, romancer, and essayist, from Chaucer and Shakespeare continuously down to Charles Lamb and Sir Walter Scott. St Valentine had an ephemeral literature in the days of the missives. He has the honour of a standard literature of goodly bulk besides.


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