Category Archives: Divining

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Custom demised: St Paul’s Day Weather predictions

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For many say the 25th January and the acknowledgement would be Burn’s Night, but country folk also identified the day, St Paul’s Day or St Annanias Day, as one of the days of the year in which the weather for the rest of the year could be predicted. The earliest version of this is a Latin verse from monks quoted  by John Brand’s 1841 Popular antiquities

“Clara dies Pauli bona tempera denotat anni;
Si nix vel pluvia, designat tempera cara;
Si fiant nebulae, pereunt animalia quaeque;
Si fiant venti, designat praelia genti.”

There are several French and English translations of these lines in to appropriate verse such as:

“If St. Paul’s day be fair and clear,
It does betide a happy year;
But if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all kind of grain;
If clouds or mists do dark the skie,
Great store of birds and beasts shall die;
And if the winds do flie aloft,
Then war shall vexe the kingdome oft.”

Or

 “If Saint Paul’s Day be faire and clear,  It doth betide a happy year; If blustery winds do blow aloft,  Then wars will trouble our realm full oft; And if it chance to snow or rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”

Or

“If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear We shall have a happy year.
But if we have but wind and rain dear will be the price of grain.
If clouds and mist do mark the sky Great store of birds and beasts will die.”

Some counties have recorded local versions such as Devon:

“If St Paul’s Day be fine expect a good harvest, If it wet or showery be expect a famine. If it is wind expect a war.”

The predictive nature of the verses thus is three-fold. Firstly it predicts the weather for the year, then its affect on agriculture and then its effect on the war!  But why the 25th?  However, fair weather on St. Paul’s day predicted a prosperous year ahead. snow or rain betokened an unprofitable and clouds suggested death of cattle; and winds predicted war.

Brand again remarks:

“I do not find that any one has even hazarded a conjecture why prognostications of the weather &c for the whole year are to be drawn from the appearance of this day.”

Yet as Brand (1841) states that it is

“article of constant belief in Western Europe, during the middle ages, and even down to our own time, that the whole character of the coming year is prognosticated by the condition of the weather on this day; and this is the more singular, as the day itself was one of those to which the old prognosticators gave the character of a dies Ægyptiacus, or unlucky day.”

John Gay in his 1716 Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, also notes:

“All superstition from thy breast repel Let credulous boys and prattling nurses How if the Festival of Paul be clear tell Plenty from liberal horn shall show the year rain When the dark skies dissolve in snow or The lab ring hind shall yoke the steer in vain roar But if the threatening winds in tempests Then War shall bathe her wasteful sword in gore He concludes Let no such vulgar tales debase thy mind and wind Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds.”

The author of the excellent weatherwithouttechnology.co.uk notes that:

“This is a good guide for the first six months, but after that tails off somewhat. However, it has been known to be 90% correct and in one year, 100% correct.”

And adds a person note:

“Having religiously followed the following instructions by Uncle Offa for 15 years, the best result was 80%, and I found that up to the last week of June it is quite reliable, alas, after that it does tail off rapidly”

Should anyone want to revive this custom widely and publish predictions they state that:

“When following the weather on this day, it is necessary to observe and note down its phases hour by hour, or even every half hour throughout the day from 6am until 6pm. This is due to the belief that the hours of the day will reflect the weather month by month throughout that year. Generally such signs are dependable to the end of July, but diminish thereafter.”

This year on the 25th where I was, was fine and clear. Further north there was snow. Thus that may influence the relevance of the method its geographical scope!

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

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Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

Custom occasional: Spitting on the Heart of Midlothian, Edinburgh

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Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?

The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.

Spit it out

One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.

I could just spit

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.

At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.

Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.

However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.

However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.

Custom demised: Visiting Wilcote Lady well on Palm Sunday

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“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”

Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384

My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.

The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:

Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.

The correspondent notes that:

“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”

The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide(2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:

“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”

Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:

“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”

Another correspondent noted:

“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”

Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:

“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”

Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.

Custom transcribed: Polish Andrzejki or St Andrew’s Day love divination

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“ The St Andrew Day –

Young girls hope and pray…”

The UK’s burgeoning Polish community has added and as well augmented our calendar customs. In many cases they have revived those customs which fell into abeyance at the Reformation due to the prominence of Catholism but in some cases they have introduced something unique. The Polish observance of St Andrew’s Day eve is one.

The observations on St Andrew’s Day or Andrzejki is about games associated with the future romantic encounters of the participants. Today these observations are perhaps not done in earnest but as a piece of juvenile fun. I was invited to see these prognostications one St. Andrew Day evening to a private party of young girls who had planned to celebrate the evening accordingly with some music, laughter (there was a lot of giggling) and predicting their love life…oh and giggling. Did I mention this? They weren’t keen on being photographed but were happy for me to photograph their activities

Paper kisses

When I turned up the girl’s dinning room was set up with paper, pens, keys and bowls of water…as well lots of sweets and cups for drinks. I asked them what the paper was for. I discovered that they planned to write all the names of the boys they all knew (jointly I imagine for what it entailed). With lots of chatting, much due to it being Polish, unintelligible, the girls closed their eyes and taking it turns one of the girls help up the paper and then another with a pin closed her eyes and inserted it into it..it missed a name. One of the girls examined it and decided it was Alex and then they went on becoming more and more giggly especially when one of the names transpired to be a boy who the older girl did actually fancy!

Soul mate

Then the girls turned sat down and took off their shoes. They then decided from the back wall to place them in sequence, a shoe at a time, along a line to the door. As the door got nearer there was genuine excitement to see who’s would cross the threshold. It was Amanda who was embarrassed to found she’d be the first to marry.

Sincerely, I love you, without wax

But wax will help! A few drinks later and the evening ended with the girls picking up a key and as she held it over a bowl of water another tipped a candle over the it and it flowed through the key and into the water. The other girls looked intently to try and work out what shape the wax had cooled and solidified into…it looked like an S, was it Symon? Clearly as the giggles developed one who was already again favoured. Each girl took turns and tried to interpret which in the main looked like an S or a splodge!

See the source image

Why St. Andrew’s Day?

As St Andrew’s Day often came with the start of Advent in the Catholic Church it was a good time for reflection, and prayer to  develop spiritual contact with God. As a result St Andrew became a patron  of young girls looking for love guidance as such since at least the 16th Century in Poland such fortune  telling has been recorded. St Andrew’s Eve was also the last day when dancing parties were permitted. Therefore, understandably with discussion of future spouses enterprising people have identified the night as an opportunity to have discos and club nights encouraged by the idea that any partner found on that night would be the one.

Custom demised: Love divination on St. Faith’s and St. Luke’s Day

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On the eve of St Faith’s Day, a 3rd century Aquitaine resident, Virgin and Martyr,  being burned on an iron bed placed over a flame pit. Thomas Thistleton- Dyer (1875) British Popular culture records the procedure:

“On this day a very curious custom is observed in the North of England. A cake of flour, spring-water, salt, and sugar must be made by three maidens or three widows, and each must have an equal share in the composition. It is then baked before the fire in a Dutch-oven, and, all the while it is doing, silence must be strictly observed, and the cake must be turned nine times, or three times to each person. When it is thoroughly done it is divided into three parts. Each one taking her share, and cutting it into nine slices, must pass each slip three times through a wedding-ring previously borrowed from a woman who has been married at least seven years.”

He records that each one must eat her nine slices as she is undressing, and repeat the following rhyme:

“good St. Faith, be kind to-night, And bring to me my heart’s delight; Let me my future husband view, Aud be my visions chaste and true.”

Another source suggests that it consisted of:

“An egg-shell-full of salt, An egg-shell-full of wheat meal. An egg-shell-full of barley-meal. Water.”

Notes and Queries appears to record another less prescription method undertaken in October across Ireland:

“In Ireland, this season is celebrated by the making of the Michaelmas cake. A lady’s ring is mixed in the dough, and, when the cake is baked it is cut into sections and distributed to the unmarried people at table, and the person who gets the slice with the ring ” is sure to be married before next Michaelmas”

Of course, like many calendar custom allowed a second attempt to discover your sweetheart, this time without making a cake. Thomas Firminger and Thistleton Dyer in their 1884 work Folklore of plants.  On the eve of St. Luke. In this case it could be found by rubbing dry marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme and a wormwood. These were sifting through a fine piece of lawn and simmer over a slow fire. To this honey and vinegar was added. After doing all this one anointed oneself before going to bed and recite the following:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In dreams let me my true love see”

She must turn around three times and cast over their left shoulder. If on falling the mixture forms a letter this was your sweetheart and if it fell apart dead would happen! Was it worth doing I wonder…a cake would be better!