St. Valentine's Day, like a lot of other things, is rooted in love and war, tragedy and comedy. Emperor Claudius II is the man responsible for the February traffic in notes of love and romance. He needed disciplined soldiers to fight his Third Century wars, and reckoned that men unhindered by wives and children would make the best fighters. He outlawed marriage for his men. Valentine, a priest in Rome, didn't think that was right. He secretly tied young lovers in knots.
He was beheaded for his trouble, which got him canonized, and lovers have been losing their heads on St. Valentine's Day ever since. Cupid became the symbol of the holiday, armed with bow and arrow to stitch the hearts of lovers. Cupid shot himself in the foot so that Psyche would fall in love with him, but on the condition that she never look at him. When she opened her eyes, as a woman is wont to do, Cupid, suffering commitment terror, fled. There's a modern moral hidden somewhere in that story.
Middle Ages custom required men to draw names of ladies from large urns and pin them on their sleeves, the first men to wear their hearts on their sleeves. When Ophelia goes mad over her passion for Hamlet, she sings a bawdy song about St. Valentine's Day, reinforcing the idea that one can be madly in love.
Rites and wrongs for celebrating St. Valentine's Day change with the times. The Victorian cards frilly with lace and flowers that our great-grandparents sent to each other often were accompanied by handwritten notes reflecting secret feelings. Now you can send the word by e-mail, with a selection of special fonts, dingbats and glyphs with which to woo. Longing for love has become logging-on to romance.
Romancing online has its risks, but it has become big business. Thousands of single men and women have visited dating sites since Match.com promised in 1995 that it could forge links to the heart with a questionnaire. Questions about religion, race, height, weight, hair and eye color, eating and drinking habits, attitudes toward money, sex, education and family plumbed the secret places of the heart. You get the idea. A Pew survey finds that 53 million Americans have gone out with someone they met through Internet websites.