St. Valentine’s Day is felt to belong to lovers but I always associate the day with letters, remembering that the martyr Valentinus was said to have sent a letter to a young woman, formerly blind, whose sight he had restored by faith, on the night before his execution. He signed his letter simply, “From your Valentine”.  Now you know the first time this salutation was used.

Social Media and electronic mail continue to change our ways of communicating with those we care about and love, but the telephone started this change as soon as the cost of long distance calls decreased. My grandmother was a gracious letter writer and she clearly tried to impress upon her children the value of the habit and my mother and her only sister wrote to each other from time to time. Each always apologized in their letters for their poor penmanship (“henscratching”), for not writing more often and noted that there was “nothing important” or they “would have phoned”. They both clearly had the view that letters were important, even though they would have preferred to communicate by phone. As long as their mother was alive, they tried to stay in touch with an occasional letter, but both preferred the phone and, as soon as long distance calling became inexpensive, they spoke to each other rather than write. My mother was dyslexic and found writing a chore but she also clearly liked to hear a person’s voice and loved the immediacy of conversations, especially since she was an accomplished raconteur.

Like my grandmother, however, I like letters. I write to two people very regularly: my daughter and my aunt. Otherwise, if someone is not well or has a celebration to mark or if I really am thinking about them, I will send them a letter or a postcard. I feel that the deliberateness of finding the correct card or stationery and writing a note truly indicates that I am thinking about them. I also know that these letters bring pleasure to people and I like the thought of giving someone an unexpected pleasure in their day. In her Christmas card to me, my aunt wrote a sentence about how much she enjoyed my letters and my daughter sent me an email thanking me for “all the lovely mail”, saying that it made her feel “truly loved”. Both of these acknowledgements demonstrated that my letters had achieved their purpose and how often are our actions truly accomplish this?

At a time when Canada Post is ending the home delivery of mail, with the reasoning that most communication is now electronic, there is clearly no consideration for the personal communication of mail. To respond in a timely fashion is now valued over a deliberate response and writing is usually more deliberate than email or facebook or twitter. I use all of these other forms of communication as well – I have seven email accounts, and I’m sure that I’m not unique in this regard. In the same way that I had studied the art of letter writing, I also deliberately seek out advice on the use of social media.

This short essay is, in a way, like a generic St. Valentine’s Day letter, observing a custom of sending letters on St. Valentine’s Day that began in the Middle Ages. Most of you are reading this in my blog, a custom about a decade old. I don’t usually use generic letters because they seem so impersonal to me, but on this day that commemorates the value of a letter, let me express my regard for those who are taking the time to read this “letter”. May it help you consider sending a communication that will remind a friend, family member or colleague of your regard for them.

4 thoughts on “St. Valentine’s Day and the Custom of Letters

  1. Helen Spenser says:

    My parents now in their nineties saved all the letters that my brother and I sent to them during our summers at camp. Even more remarkable is the collection of letters sent home from France. I was 21 years old and it was my first full year away from Ontario, family and friends.
    I feel privileged to be able to review these letters and to relate ( with some surprise) to my 21 year old self. Most surprising is to read with amusement some of the phraseology in my letters directly scooped from expressions that I remember my father “spouting”.
    I agree that we have lost some of the charm and pleasure associated with stamped wax seals and of excitedly ripping open a letter with the anticipation of the heartfelt words that wait buried deep within the envelope. Excuse the metaphor but in my view replacing letter writing with email is a little like doing away with foreplay ( or is this a simile rather than a metaphor?). Though I kept the letters I am afraid that I threw away my spelling and grammar texts. Sorry Mrs. Keobler
    Helen Spenser

  2. Joseph Mayer says:

    Great post Gail — our society is so ephemeral, I wonder what record there will be of us: emails, blogs, Facebook pages, tweets, digital photos…all of it supposedly “living on the Internet forever” but with each new generation of technology the old data becomes harder to recover. I treasure (and keep) many of the Christmas cards people send me every year, and always send a bunch, trying to personalize them as appropriate. I agree that people do very much appreciate these personal messages. Thanks for this essay!

    1. drgailbeck says:

      In answer to Joe, I hope that in time we will begin to use these new technologies for more lasting communications. One of the recent facebook novelties was that you could make your own facebook video – facebook produced the video automatically at your request and most of the ones I saw were very good, an excellent record of my friends’ years on facebook. Look for it!

  3. Andrew says:

    Will you be my Valentine?

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