Valentine's Day is an optional extra in our calendar of "days". Unlike Christmas, you can ignore it. You can walk past the rack of cards with scarlet hearts and frilly lace edges without feeling guilty. People can be fond of each other without making a tawdry, commercially-driven, once a year fuss about it.
It used to be taken seriously, with a pagan festival of the (northern) spring celebrating the mating of birds and, by extension, the courtship of lovers. Somehow a priest called Valentine got involved. He infuriated the Roman emperor Claudius II by trying to protect Christians who were being persecuted, so Claudius had him rather nastily clubbed and beheaded. In due course Valentine was declared a saint – the patron saint not of lovers but of epileptics.
In Britain the names of the girls in a village were placed in a box and drawn out by young men in a kind of lottery. The couples remained "Valentines" for the year but were not necessarily expected to marry each other. It wasn’t just rustics either. People of all social classes made something of it – although not everybody joined in. A nobleman wrote sniffily that "a lady of wit and quality ... would never put herself to the chance of a Valentine, saying she would never couple herself but by choice."
In the seventeenth century it wasn't choice but chance: your Valentine was the first person of the opposite sex you saw on February 14th. In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded his intention not to visit a particular friend on that day in case he was claimed by the daughter of the family. On another occasion he remarked that he had painters in the house and was obliged to keep Mrs Pepys busy in case she met one of them by chance.
There was a practical reason for this. Gentlemen were expected to give their Valentines presents of gloves, stockings, garters or trinkets. The custom died out, perhaps because men resented having to give presents to women they hardly knew. True lovers continued the practice, however. Women composed poems and embroidered pieces of silk with messages, and men gave presents of books, jewellery and pottery. Sailors at sea carved bone and ivory into corset stiffeners and bobbins for making lace, decorating them with lovers' knots, flowers and sweet words.
Nowadays the age of romance has been replaced by bumper-sticker philosophy, and instead of hearts and flowers we find "Make love not war" sprayed on walls, foot-noted perhaps by pithy additions: "I'm married, I do both" or possibly, for those who remember their Latin, "amo, amas, amat it again". There is more cynicism. "It begins when you sink into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink" has acquired the status of an aphorism. Not that this view is new. Two centuries ago Jane Austen was clear-eyed about romantic expectations: "Happiness in marriage” she said, “is entirely a matter of chance".
But St Valentine's Day is not dead. Caring but undemonstrative chaps can sidle home to their wives or girlfriends with some small token of love without having to say anything mushy. It is still a day for flowers, chocolates and soppy cards. A picklepuss might point out that it is easy enough to send a card on one day of the year but what really counts is how the sender behaves the rest of the time.
For those who cheerfully ignore Mother's Day and Father's Day as commercial rip-offs, and would ignore Christmas if it weren't for the children, St Valentine's Day will pass by unnoticed. But there will be a few romantics who will wake with a leap of the heart and watch for the postie with more than usual eagerness on February fourteenth.