On the Month of February

Source: Demorest’s Monthly, February 1897

It seems strange that so dreary a month as February should ever have been graced with the charming myths which have gathered about St. Valentine’s Day, and made its observance one of the relics of the fairy-land of love and dreams, which passed away when the shriek of the steam-whistle, and the click of the telegraph announced that only tangible realities were to be considered respectable, and that all stock in the realm of romance and superstition had fallen below par. Charles Lamb in his inimitable essay says that in his time already the pretty customs of Valentine’s Day were passing out of aristocratic society, and falling to the share of the footman and the housemaid; but we rather think that there were ladies and gentlemen of “high degree” who envied the footmen and housemaids the liberty exercised under the good saint, and would fain have had a share in the fun.

The pretty fable of the birds choosing their mates upon this day, and receiving the episcopal blessing, has been immortalized by Chaucer, and has given it the charm of freshness and poetic fancy; and in spite of the efforts which have been made to discredit it by coarse caricature and associations, February, with its weeping clouds and disconsolate skies, is welcomed chiefly by the young folk, because of its genial holiday. The shops are gay with every variety of fanciful conceit that can be pressed into the service. Hearts are at a discount, but darts above par. Cupids are lively, and to look in at the shop windows takes one back to the days of chivalry when men were thrilled with chains of roses, instead of links of gold. But no degree of prosaic commonplace, no commercial estimate of values, can alter human nature; no Midas’s touch can change the roses into gold pieces, or shut out the winged-boy who owns allegiance to St. Valentine, the only saint in the calendar he is inclined to favor.

Love vibrates in the wind-harp’s tune,
With fays and fairies lingers he,
Gleams in the ring of the watery moon,
Or treads the pebbles of the sea,
And everywhere he welcome finds;
To cottage door or palace porch
Love enters free as spicy winds
With purple wings and lighted torch,
With tripling feet and silvery tongue,
And bows and darts behind him slung!

Upon Valentine’s days the well pleased postman carries about the fluttering captive at the risk of crushing his rosy wings, and the yet more imminent risk of a sly dart; but whether hidden in elegant rose scented paper, or folded ruthlessly up in some staring horror, decked with green and blue, he always comes out “good as new,” and plays precisely the same tricks upon the boy that reads the “horror” in some safe corner of the stable, as upon the courtly dame who unfolds the gilded missive, and is quite content in both cases if he adds another bleeding heart to his trophies.

It was certainly in less rigorous climes than ours that the birds chose February for their troth plighting and that it was asserted by Chaucer of the good saint that

“All the air is his diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are his parishioners.”

Indeed, England seems to have nourished all the fanciful superstitions and coquettish customs of this festival with great care, and at one time it was observed with infinite zest by “grave and reverend seigniors.” The custom of giving presents as a return for being chosen as a valentine was universal, and is noticed many times by old English authors.

Mr. Pepys in his celebrated diary makes this entry 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 five pounds.”

But the true, proper ceremony of St. Valentine’s Day was a drawing of a kind of lottery, followed by ceremonies not much unlike what is generally called the game of forfeits. Mission, a learned traveler of the early part of the last century, gives apparently a correct account of the principal ceremonial Valentine’s Day, he says, the young folks of England and Scotland by a very ancient custom celebrate a little festival. The girls, and young men assemble together and write a name upon slips of paper, the girls writing the name of a gentleman, the young men that of a lady. These are mixed up in separate receptacles, and drawn from by the persons present, who in this way get each a “Valentine,” who, though only compulsory for a year, was not unfrequently chosen for life. This custom is made the basis of a story by “Hope Ledyard” in the present number, and has been the basis of song and story. It is even modernized as a drawing-room game, in which the parties are not, however, chosen for a year, but only for the evening, and though it sometimes degenerates into which is called the “Wristlet” game, yet even this owes its origin to the same idea.

It might not be amiss for some of our beaux and belles to revive this interesting game, and cheer the waning days of winter with its gayety. It would be well to make the present offered always flowers; since the simplest nosegay is always elegant, and the most lavish cost is always possible, this would suit the means and the taste of every class, and take away the taint of vulgarity always attached to a compliment which may possibly be interested.

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