Valentine’s traditions

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THERE is an old tradition that birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day.

It is true that some species are early nesters and they’d be collecting material now, if the weather were kinder.

The association between St Valentine and courting birds was well known to 14th-century writers, who helped to spread the custom of sending love tokens from court circles to the gentry.

But the ideal of courtly love was out of fashion by the 17th century, when Valentine’s Day became a game.

Partners were chosen by drawing names from a box.

The men would buy a little gift for their Valentine and the pair would play at being lovers by exchanging compliments.

The romantics struck back in the late 1700s with the rise of the anonymous, handwritten greeting. Some of these declarations of love were simple letters, while others were charmingly illustrated.

The twin strands of true romance and harmless flirtation spread through society and can still be seen today in the choice of serious or humorous Valentine’s cards.

Even our frankly insulting cards are nothing new: Victorians firms got there first with designs that parodied traditional romantic greetings.

But if the senders were amused, many recipients of joke Valentines were so disappointed that the whole idea became tarnished.

By the early 1900s people had fallen out of love with Valentine’s Day to such an extent that it almost vanished, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the customs were revived, thanks mainly to American influence.

Tokens of love

As February 14 approaches we’re bombarded with advertising for gifts such as flowers, chocolate, jewellery or items of apparel usually involving scratchy lace. But what could lovers expect in days gone by?

Instead of costly florist’s roses, the beau of yesteryear would present a posy of wild spring flowers.

A romantic gesture, and also practical if you were not so well off. For those who could afford it, a small item of jewellery was always acceptable as a keepsake.

In less forward times than ours, giving clothing would have been seen as far too intimate, although a delicate handkerchief, gloves, or even silk stockings were considered respectable gifts.

One gift that hasn’t endured is the wooden spoon.

Not the kind found in the kitchen, but an elaborately carved “lovespoon” created by a young man for his special girl. This custom was found all over Europe, the Balkans and in parts of Africa.

If the woman accepted the spoon, it was a sign that she was interested in the man. The couple were recognised as courting or “spooning”.

The earliest known British lovespoon, dating from 1667, is from Wales.

It’s obviously not meant to be used because its handle includes two small cages with seeds inside, all carved from one piece of wood.

An everyday spoon was made from sycamore wood, as this will stand repeated washing and drying and doesn’t absorb flavours.

But for a lovespoon, yew, oak, box, holly, cherry, apple, pear, walnut or lime would allow the craftsman to show off his skill with fine detail.

A love spoon could be any size from a few inches to a yard.

The carver might incorporate items associated with his trade, but generally the decorations were symbolic.

Many spoons had entwined hearts, of course. A chain implied “together, forever”.

A ship could represent setting out on life’s voyage, or an anchor, settling down. A key was the key to heart or home.

Cornucopias meant plenty, wheels good fortune, and lovebirds or the tree of life a growing relationship.

Most astonishing are the free-running spheres carved within a cage, showing the number of children the couple hoped for.

Carved lovespoons were also presented to couples as a wedding gift, and in Scandinavia the history of these decorative spoons can be traced back to the 12th century.

In Wales the tradition of carving lovespoons has continued and many are bought to present at weddings or christenings.