Of Saint Valentine nothing is known, except that he (or they - there were at least two of the same name around the same time) was martyred for his faith. Everything else is pious legend. His association with lovers seems not to have occurred until the late 14th century.
The story of Saint Valentine, as known to the medieval European, is recounted in the 13th century "Golden Legend":
"S. Valentine, friend of our Lord and priest of great authority, was at Rome. It happed that Claudius the emperor made him to come tofore him and said to him in demanding: What thing is that which I have heard of thee, Valentine? Why wilt thou not abide in our amity, and worship the idols and renounce the vain opinion of thy creance? S. Valentine answered him: If thou hadst very knowledge of the grace of Jesu Christ thou shouldest not say this that thou sayest, but shouldest deny the idols and worship very God."
This did not go over well with the emperor "...and S. Valentine was delivered in the keeping of the provost."
"When S. Valentine was brought in an house in prison, then he prayed to God, saying: Lord Jesu Christ very God, which art very light, enlumine this house in such wise that they that dwell therein may know thee to be very God. And the provost said: I marvel me that thou sayest that thy God is very light, and nevertheless, if he may make my daughter to hear and see, which long time hath been blind, I shall do all that thou commandest me, and shall believe in thy God. S. Valentine anon put him in prayers, and by his prayers the daughter of the provost received again her sight, and anon all they of the the house were converted. After, the emperor did do smite off the head of S. Valentine, the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty. Then let us pray to S. Valentine that he get us pardon of our sins. Amen."
The choosing of a 'valentine' seems to have been an attempt to nudge young people in the right direction toward matrimony - following along the thought that if you pair up an unmarried young man with an unmarried young woman, who then keep company together, give each other little presents, wear each others' favors, attend the dances and festivals together, etc., they might just have a heart-shaped lightbulb moment and continue keeping company all the way to the altar.
Be that as it may, once the idea of choosing a valentine took hold, it stayed - except that it wasn't so much choice as luck of the draw. The universal custom relied on lots to assign valentines to each other - but from there, the customs differed according to time and place.
[Oh, and none of this had anything to do with the Roman festival of Lupercalia. Nothing. Zip. I refer you to this article on the Lupercalia, and Mr. Thayer's comments at the end of it. As he says, "There are a lot of things we don't know. Many people, abhorring a void, fill it up with nonsense." True... too true.]
But, back to the differing customs:
1. The names of the young unmarried women (only) were put in a receptacle. Each unmarried young man drew a name, and for the time being (whatever it was by custom) was that woman's cavalier servente. [per Rev. Butler, Saint Francis de Sales tried to stop this in the early 17th century by substituting saints' names for those of the young women. I wonder, did he substitute female saints for the young men to worship?]
2. The names of the unmarried young men and the unmarried young women were put in different receptacles. Each person drew from the names of the opposite gender, giving each young woman two beaus to her string (the one she chose and the one who chose her) and each young man two belles to his. Little attentions were expected from all, but, as reported in Francois Maximilian Misson's "Memoirs and Observations in his Travels into England" in 1698: "... the Man sticks faster to the Valentine that is fallen to him than to the Valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the Valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in Love."
3. Another custom using the lot was that the first person of the opposite sex one sees that day is one's Valentine. William Walsh in his "Curiosities of Popular Customs" (1898) calls this "challenging your Valentine": "The challenge consisted simply in saying, "Good morrow, 'tis St. Valentine's Day," and he or she who said it first on meeting a person of the opposite sex received a present. Later a gallant custom enacted that the gentleman alone should give the present, but only if he were successfully challenged. This explains good Mr. Pepys's anxiety when early on St. Valentine's Day (1664) he called at Sir William Batten's and would not go in "till I asked whether they that opened the door was a man or a woman, and Mingo, who was there, answered a woman, which, with his tones, made me laugh; so up I went, and took Mrs. Martha for my Valentine (which I do only for complacency); and Sir W. Batten he go in the same manner to my wife, and so we were very merry.""
Further: "It seems also that some element of choice as well as of chance had now been introduced into the sport, for a person could wilfully close his or her eyes and refuse to open them until an appropriate mate arrived. Thus, on next St. Valentine's Day Mr. Pepys records that Will Bowyer came to be his wife's valentine, "she having (at which I made good sport to myself) held her hands all the morning, that she might not see the painters that were at work gilding my chimney-piece and pictures in my dining-room." "
Today would be a good day to make a contribution to the Heart Association; maybe even a pretty quilt or two for the use of young heart patients at your local Children's Hospital; or start saving up your pledge for the local heart walks which will be starting up here shortly as the weather gets better.
A teeny-tiny rant:
Oh dear. As with every holiday so far, the legions are out decrying today's celebration.
"It is just an excuse for debauchery and fornication!"
("Where?" says the Widow, suddenly interested.)