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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 08:30 GMT

The accidental patron

The life of Valentine

One wonders what St Valentine would make of it all. A life more untouched by romance than his would be hard to find.

A priest of Rome under Claudius,Valentine was imprisoned for giving succour to persecuted Christians.

He became a convert and although he is supposed to have restored the sight of the gaoler's blind daughter, his fate was still to be clubbed to death around 270 AD.

His day became 14 February but he also shares this with St Valentine, Bishop of Terni, who was martyred a few years later.

Since 1835 his relics have been claimed by the Carmelite church in Dublin.

The love association

All the evidence suggests that the ancient custom of choosing Valentines has only accidental relation to either of the Saint Valentines.

Essentially, it appears to be a relic of the old Roman Lupercalia, feasts celebrated in honour of Pau and Juno.

Among other festivities during Lupercalia, the names of young women were put in a box and drawn out by the men in a game of love lottery.

The pastors of the early Christian church tried to eradicate all vestiges of pagan superstitions. So, to deal with this particular remnant, they substituted the names of young maidens with those of saints .

Lupercalia began around the middle of February so they appear to have chosen St Valentine's day for the newly designated feast.

But, it was impossible to eradicate what was a well-established ceremony. The outline of the ancient ceremonies remained, though modified by some adaptation to the Christian religion.

Another explanation given for the festival is its association with the belief, which is at least as old as Chaucer's time, that birds pair up on February 14.

'For this was on seynt Valantynys day When eury bryd comyth there to chese his make'

Chaucer wrote in his Parliament of Fowls c.1381

But what it boils down to is that no one really knows how the annual day of love came to be.

The first lovers

The annual love festival of Valentine's Day was originally marked by young people who would write the names of possible 'mates' on slips of paper and then draw them by lot.

Gifts were given by the men to the Valentine allotted to them.

Conveniently, the sweethearts selected in this way could be changed a year later.

By the 17th century, handmade cards were oversized and elaborate, while store-bought ones were smaller and costly.

But, printers were already beginning to produce a limited number of cards with verses and sketches.

The real revolution came in the early 19th century with a reduction in postal rates. This helped to establish the custom of sending anonymous messages or cards to those one admired.

Towards the end of the 19th century things were getting out of hand. Cards and messages had become satirical, even racey, rather than sentimental and had been adopted mainly as a practice of the lower orders.

The cards took the form of a single sheet of paper with coloured a caricature of a man or woman and a few lines of verse.

If the card was sentimental, it would have prints such as a couple at Hymen's altar with Cupid and hearts as adornment.

Modern love

Now, we all know that both kinds of card continue to be sent, anonymous or not.

But according to Frances Pine of Dateline, the 1990s lover is definitely a true romantic.

In the trendsetting liberated 1960s romance was the last thing on people's minds.At the end of the '70s people started to become obsessed with materialism, and the '80s brought the black mood of recession

She said: "However, in hard times, people need a constant and they begin to realise how much relationships are worth. They return to the old values and status quo of the '50s and this is where we are at now but with more money and imagination to really celebrate them."

There's hope for the human race yet.

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The St.Pachomius library has translations of the acts of the Christian martyrs, the lives of the early saints

History of the Roman Empire

History of Lupercalia

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In this section

The accidental patron

Cupboard love

The bottom line of true love

The things we do for love