Monthly Archives: February 2014

Custom survived: A visit from Father, Jack or Mother Valentine

Click the image for a great account!

Click the image for a great account!

Multi-channel TV, the World Wide Web, international trade: all these things and other have brought us closer together, allowed us to share ideas and thoughts. Homogenised us and made us all very similar. Yet every now and then one comes across a custom or tradition whose very survival flies in the face of this globalisation. Jack or Father Valentine is one. Why? Because for some inexplicable reason it is largely restricted to two counties: Norfolk and Suffolk, and not only this it is restricted largely to Norwich and Lowestoft?

Normal for Norfolk?

Across the country in Victorian times, Valentine’s Day was an important day in the calendar. I have already described how the giving of cards was revived across the country on another post, but apparently whilst the sending of cards died out, in this obscure part of the country, Valentines was not forgotten.  Porter (1974) in the Folklore of East Anglia notes:

“Norwich is still known for the enthusiasm with which, by the sending of cards and gifts, the inhabitants celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on 14th February. The gifts should, traditionally be delivered in person, and the rat-tatting of door knockers was a familiar Valentines sound. “

However, despite this clearly describing the custom, the name is missing. This name Jack Valentine can metamorphose into Old Father Valentine, or Old Mother Valentine. Descriptions of the custom first arise in the mid 1800s. A lengthy note given by a John Wodderspoon is described in the first series of Notes and Queries:

“ST. VALENTINE IN NORWICH—. The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in the city of Norwich. Although “Valentines,” as generally understood, that is to say billets sent by means of the post, are as numerously employed here as in other places, yet the custom consists not in the transmission of a missive overflowing with hearts and darts, or poetical posies, but in something far more substantial, elegant and costly—to wit, a goodly present of value unrestricted in use or expense. Though this custom is openly adopted among relatives and others whose friendship is reciprocated, yet the secret mode of placing a friend in possession of an offering is followed largely,—and this it is curious to remark, not on the day of the saint, when it might be supposed that the appropriateness of the gift would be duly ratified, the virtue of the season being in full vigour, but on the eve of St. Valentine, when it is fair to presume his charms are not properly matured. The mode adopted among all classes is that of placing the presents on the door-sill of the house of the favoured person, and intimating what is done by a run-a-way knock or ring as the giver pleases.”

 Despite the late recording it is clear from the account that the custom must have been well established as the author continues:

 “So universal is this custom in this ancient city, that it may be stated with truth some thousands of pounds are annually expended in the purchase of Valentine presents. At the time of writing (February 2.) the shops almost generally exhibit displays of articles calculated for the approaching period, unexampled in brilliancy, taste and costliness, and including nearly every item suitable to the drawing room, the parlour, or the boudoir. The local papers contain numerous advertising announcements of “Valentines;” the walls are occupied with printed placards of a similar character, and the city crier, by means of a loud bell and an equally sonorous voice, proclaims the particular advantages in the Valentine department of rival emporiums. All these preparations increase as the avator of St. Valentine approaches. At length the saint and his eve arrives—passes—and the custom, apparently expanding with age, is placed in abeyance until the next year. I am inclined to believe that this mode of keeping St. Valentine is confined to this city and the county of Norfolk.”

 A well written account in Thiselton-dyer’s (1900) British Popular Customs Present and Past reads

“Norfolk. As soon as it is dark, packages may be seen being carried about in a most mysterious way; and as soon as the coast seems clear, the parcel is laid on the doorstep, the bell rung, and the bearer runs away. Inside the house is all on the qui vive, and the moment the bell is heard, all the little folks (and the old ones too, sometimes) rush to the door, and seize the parcel and scrutinize the direction most anxiously, and see whether it is for papa or mamma, or one of the youngsters. The parcels contain presents of all descriptions, from the most magnificent books or desks, to little unhappy squeaking dolls. These presents are always sent anonymously, and nearly always contain a few verses, ending with the distich:

‘If you’ll be mine, 1’11 be thine, And so good morrow, Valentine.’

 The Opies (1959) in the Lore and Language of Schoolchildren note:

 “From Heydon and Stalham in the north-east to Loddon in the south, young children played ‘Jack Valentine’ and knock on the doors or windows of houses and leave little gifts on the doorsteps.”

The Opies (1959) also record rhymes, common at Valentines across the country, but included mention of Mother Valentine, such as Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk:

 “Good Mother Valentine, God bless the baker!, Who’ll be the giver? I’ll be the taker. The roads are very dirty, My boots are very clean, And I’ve got a pocket, to put a penny in.”

However, this is more common frequently encountered sounding like a begging rhyme once found across the country under the name of ‘valentining’ And Tuttingham near Aylsham reads:

“Good morning, Father Valentine, Trim your hair as I do mine: Two to the fore and two behind, Good morning Father Valentine.”

At Mundham they chant:

“Old Father Valentine, Draw up your window blind; If you wish to hear us sing, come down and let us in.”

Sadly, not living in Norfolk I have failed to witness this custom in person, but a search of the internet clearly reveals it to be alive. Much of what can be gathered about the tradition is from entries to fora and websites, there appears to be no modern literature I am aware of about it. A typical view is that of a Dave Tong who described that:

“We felt as you do at Christmas – both excited and almost sick, waiting for the knock on the door and the present of marbles, plasticine or maybe even gun caps if you were really lucky. A neighbour knocked on our door and later my dad did the same for their family. This was in the 60s and we still carry on the tradition with our own children today. The reason some in Norfolk haven’t heard of it is I think because it came out of Norwich where my parents lived and so has only spread slowly outside the confines of the City.”

 A Leanne Tink notes:

“We used to look forward to Father valentine visiting more than Christmas day!It was always so exciting. I always used to think oh mum has missed him coming again!! I carried on this lovely tradition with all three of my children up until a few years ago and still do get them a small gift.”

 A good account from a Paul Gray noted:

“Coming from Gorleston, near Gt Yarmouth, I can remember the loud ‘knock’ on the front door on Valentine’s evening after dark. There was always a small bag containing sweets and maybe a book, game or model plane to build. This was in the 1960’s. Usually a neighbour was coerced to knock and deliver. My wife and I carried on the tradition in exactly the same way for our twins (Good ol’Reg!)- but as Reg was not as sprightly as he once was, we had to hold the twins back for a few seconds to allow Reg to slip into the shadows. As far as I was told, the custom doesn’t extend the Norwich-Lowestoft-Yarmouth area.”

Bullet for a valentine!

 An Amanda Woodhouse adds:

“Although my brother and I would get some good presents and some bad ones as our parents always said he was ‘naughty’”

With every custom which appears to welcome goodwill, there is always the other darker version. This custom is clearly no exception and the name ‘snatch Valenine’ is used. This concept of a bad presents or mock presents is recorded by Porter (1975) who adds:

“In Lowestoft, and in many places too, the gifts were left on the recipients’ doorsteps and were preceded by ‘mock’ presents such as boxes filled with nothing but paper, a custom which encouraged mischievous boys to leave such offerings as dead herrings and other unsavoury objects.”

Thistleton-Dyer (1900) using Hone’s Everyday Book as his source also notes

“At Swaffham, also, Valentines are sent on this evening. Watching for a convenient opportunity, the door is slyly opened, and the Valentine attached to an apple or an orange, is thrown in; a loud rap at the door immediately follows, and the offender taking to his heels, is off instantly. Those in the house, generally knowing for what purpose the amusing rap was made, commence a search for the juvenile billet-doux: in this manner numbers are disposed of by each youth. By way of teasing the person who attends the door, a white oblong square the size of a letter is usually chalked on the step of the door, and should an attempt be made to pick it up, great amusement is thus afforded to some of the urchins, who are generally watching.”

The Opie’s (1959) note that such pranks were common place amongst their correspondents and quite clever:

“Sometimes the older children take advantage of gift giving and play tricks. They attach a piece of string to a parcel and jerk it away from the doorstep when someone stoops to pick up.”

 Considering the time of year this could be quite unpleasant:

 “they lodge a broom or bucket of water against the door before they knock, so that when the door is opened it falls into the house.”

Love is all around

Although geographically to the Norfolk and north Suffolk, it probably has spread as people have moved away, Australia being probably the furthest! On the website an Elizabeth McManus describes:  

 “I was born in north Norfolk and always had a visit from father valentine, I am in my 50s now and always kept up the custom with my children even though I moved to Wisbech Cambs Now I do it for my grandchildren, in fact they are coming to visit today and the presents are all ready .”

A Tim Williamson also noted:

“Now we’ve bought the tradition to Brighton.”

Another, Angie Porter:

“I now live in Henley-on-Thomas and carry on the tradition for my Grandson but no one here has heard of it.”

It has spread even further afield as correspondent Matthew Benns notes:

Long live Jack Valentine. I remember the terror and excitement of Jack Valentine’s knock as a child in Norfolk so well. Now in Australia the custom has been transported here for my daughters – although with the warmer weather snatch’s repertoire has been expanded to include various other tricks involving buckets of water and the garden hose!”

 Pranks aside, Jack Valentine appears to have now been adopted by a Norwich shopping centre, the Lanes with cleverly staged CCTV footage, the report notes:

“The mythical figure of Jack Valentine has been caught on CCTV wandering around the Norwich Lanes over the last few days. In one of the stills, he’s spotted strolling around Pottergate with an urban fox. For several centuries, Jack was famous for delivering gifts to families on Valentine’s Eve, a tradition which is synonymous to Norwich and Norfolk. One local historian believes he may have returned after hearing of interest from the curators at the Bridewell Museum about his long term absence. Here in the Lanes we are incredibly excited that rumours of his return are true. If anyone else spots Jack on his travels, we urge people to contact us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #JackValentine.”

 With this sort of publicity perhaps the custom will spread. That would not be a bad thing, as I rather like this tradition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is largely localised and defied the trend for globalisation and secondly, that it is clear that the character is someone that might be known to the recipient those avoiding the Father Christmas conundrum parents have.  So this year, for my resident Norfolk diasporas I made a little visit…and left their young son something or should I say Jack did..spread the word!


CCTV1_low-230x230 Find out when it’s on:

It’s not on Calendar customs yet, but it is always the 13th February or 14th February morning and in the Norwich-North Suffolk region. for some more footage!

Custom contrived: The Grimaldi Clown Service


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“Dear Lord, I thank you for calling me to share with others your most precious gift of laughter. May I never forget that it is your gift, and my privilege.”

So reads the Clown’s Prayer read at Britain’s most colourful service. Here in a dull urban landscape, surrounded by grey buildings, closed down shops and forlorn flats…is a ray of bright cheerful sunshine. For at the church of Holy Trinity, Dalston, proclaiming as it does over its entrance, is the Clown church.

Here every year is without doubt the most colourful of modern memorials.  It remembers the so called founder of all modern clowns, the original ‘Joey’ Joseph Grimaldi a comic actor who developed the profession early 1800s. The custom begun in 1946 at St. James’s church on the Pentonville Road then moving to its current location of Holy Trinity in 1956 after its closure, although the grave is still there in the park established on the site. The service was once in January, then moved to March, but has been firmly on the first Sunday of February for many years. The reason for this timing was that this was an ideal time as clowns would be coming home from tours and seasons, circuses rarely ran at this time of year. Indeed the church was rammed…perhaps they could move it to a cathedral next time?

Someone who can tickle us and the ivories!

Someone who can tickle us and the ivories!

No clowning about

 I knew I was in the right place when on arrival; I was confronted by colourfully dressed people standing idly in the street surrounded by photographers. I spoke with one of these performers, a tall gentleman dressed slapped up as a clown copper, called Eek.  With him was his wife also a clown. Indeed they appeared to be having possibly one of the world’s strangest domestic arguments! I asked the obvious question ‘Was she a clown first or did you convert her?’ He replied he couldn’t drive and I was so tempted to say ‘why did the doors keeping falling off your car!’ but didn’t. Making my way inside there was a similar array of clowns enjoying courting attention, posing in every way possible. Usually, I get the feeling that the participants of customs would rather photographers were not there. I didn’t get that feeling this time! They loved it. All sorts of clowns were there; from across the country and beyond the English shores, I spoke to one from Denmark. Being surrounded by so many colourful clowns, like preening parrots at one point I did feel the need to do some Attenborough style narration. This was especially so when some of the younger male clowns were clowning about with the female ones!

Spot the clown....your choice of joke!

Spot the clown….your choice of joke!

Much has been said in many quarters about the psychology of clowns, but it was clear from chatting to those present that there was not one ‘type’ and many were normal (whatever that means). Sure some were a little over the top…but we don’t say that about our other performers…actors or musicians, I feel that some how as part of the entertainment business clowns get an unfair treatment

Who's behind you?

Who’s behind you?

Getting a group of attention seeking performers (and I mean this in the nicest sense) to order was a bit difficult for the vicar, exacerbated by us photographers. Although in reality, it was the photographers who were causing the biggest problem underlined when the vicar sternly announced:

“We will not have the unseemly scrum of photographers like we had in previous years!”

Her face looking like almost the very antithesis of what the service was about…she lightened up later however. She was right of course, there appeared to be two events here: the Grimaldi ceremony and a congregation of photographers, film producers etc from around the world. This colour spectacle is a gift of course for the photographer as is the opportunity for puns…I would say the service is the most reported in the Newspapers than any others outside of Royal or Political circles. In truth the church was very tolerant and gave the photographers a few minutes before the service begun for photos.

'All 'allo who's clowning about?

‘All ‘allo who’s clowning about?

 Send in the clowns…don’t worry they’re here

Armed with plastic flowers, a water gun, a bubbling making saxophone the clowns paraded in behind the usual apparel of church service. Usually the bizarre costumes are from the clergy, but here they looked decidedly normal. I thought at first with the service beginning rather traditionally with the Act of Confession, it would be a rather sombre affair, but soon some light heartedness begun. Bluebottle read the poem ‘Smile’ and was followed by Pip the Magic Clown who did a very comical piece with the visiting preacher which consisted of making a Bishop’s mitre, placing it on his head ‘filling’ it with milk and then using him as a pump! This clearly broke the ice and the vicar found the whole thing amusing. Then up was Mattie with a touching reading of Gene Kelly’s ‘Be a clown’. Mattie appeared to the elder statesman of the bunch. The rows of clowns accompanied him with the chorus… ‘be a clown’. The visiting priest berated the church for its lack of humour and told the story of a comical saint…finishing by placing a red nose on!

Clown remembered...the wreath at the shrine

Clown remembered…the wreath at the shrine

Tears of a clown

“Lord accept our prayers for the soul of your servant Joseph Grimaldi. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, and grant him fullness of life, which you have promised to those who love you; through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”

 Away from the jollity there was a clear poignant moment, when the clowns remembered their lost colleagues. As the vicar read out the list of lost clowns that year, the congregation both clown and ordinary, became hushed as one of the clown order processed with the wreath with some of the altar children carrying candles. The sadness in that slap was all so apparent. At the shrine of the great Grimaldi the wreath was ceremoniously placed and we all thought for a moment of all those laughs and laughter now lost to the world….

“God our Father, we remember before you the life of your servant known as Grimaldi the clown, his artistry, his skills and invention. We thank you for many lives blessed through his ministry. And, we thank you especially for all those, who, inspired by his ministry, have sought to bring laughter to others.”

I imagine that for some clowns, the profession is a very insular one, and the service gives them the opportunity to meet, catch up and compare notes.

Dead funny

What was clear was that from those present the profession is clearly an older person’s one – older clowns outranked younger ones I noticed – why was this? Is it that no-one wants to laugh anymore? Our clowns a bit old fashioned? Does everyone suffer from coulrophobia?  I did talk to one or two clowns, one not in slap, so I assumed they were, who’s sons was following him, but they were the oddity. Reading the literature Clowns International are aware of this and have workshops. Perhaps, also as most children’s access to clowns is via the often lack lustre ones at parties or else portrayed as rather evil in shows such as It! and Sarah Jane Adventures. Indeed, my eldest, who loves slapstick, refused to come on the later basis….a re-education is needed I feel, so I’m off to the Circus with them asap!

A clown fight!

Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link

Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve



What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”


The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.