Tag Archives: Valentine traditions

Holly Boys, Ivy Girls, Eggs, and Billets: Old-time Valentine Rites and Customs: 1829, 1700s

18th c valentine

In some villages in Kent there is a singular custom observed on St. Valentine’s day. The young maidens, from five or six to eighteen years of age, assemble in a crowd, and burn an uncouth effigy, which they denominate a “holly boy” and which they obtain from the boys; while in another part of the village the boys burn an equally ridiculous effigy, which they call an “ivy girl,” and which they steal from the girls. The oldest inhabitants can give you no reason or account of this curious practice, though it is always a sport at this season.

Numerous are the sports and superstitions concerning the day in different parts of England. In some parts of Dorsetshire the young folks purchase wax candles, and let them remain lighted all night in the bedroom. I learned this from some old Dorsetshire friends of mine, who, however, could throw no further light upon the subject. In the same county, I was also informed it was in many places customary for the maids to hang up in the kitchen a bunch of such flowers as were then in season, neatly suspended by a true lover’s knot of blue riband. These innocent doings are prevalent in other parts of England, and elsewhere.

Misson, a learned traveller, relates an amusing practice which was kept up in his time:—”On the eve of St. Valentine’s day, the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrated a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors assemble together; all write their true or some feigned name separately upon as many billets, which they rolled up, and drew by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’; so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man which she calls her’s.  By this means each has two Valentines; but the man sticks faster to the Valentine that falls to him, than to the Valentine to whom he has fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the Valentines give balls and treats to their fair mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.”

In Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1676, the drawing of Valentines is thus alluded to:

“Now Andrew, Antony, and William,

For Valentines draw

Prue, Kate, Jilian.”

Gay makes mention of a method of choosing Valentines in his time, viz. that the lad’s Valentine was the first lass he spied in the morning, who was not an inmate of the house; and the lass’s Valentine was the first young man she met.

Also, it is a belief among certain playful damsels, that if they pin four bay leaves to the corners of the pillow, and the fifth in the middle, they are certain of dreaming of their lover.

Shakspeare bears witness to the custom of looking out of window for a Valentine, or desiring to be one, by making Ophelia sing:

Good morrow! ’tis St. Valentine’s day.

All in the morning betime. And I a maid at your window.

To be your Valentine!

In London this day is ushered in by the thundering knock of the postman at the different doors, through whose hands some thousands of Valentines pass for many a fair maiden in the course of the day. Valentines are, however, getting very ridiculous, if we may go by the numerous doggerels that appear in the printshops on this day. As an instance, I transmit the reader a copy of some lines appended to a Valentine sent me last year. Under the figure of a shoemaker, with a head thrice the size of his body, and his legs forming an oval, were the following rhymes:—

Do you think to be my Valentine?

Oh, no! you snob, you shan’t be mine:

So big your ugly head has grown.

No wig will fit to seem your own.

Go, find your equal if you can,

For I will ne’er have such a man;

Your fine bow legs and turned-in feet,

Make you a citizen complete.”

The fair writer had here evidently ventured upon a pun; how far it has succeeded I will leave others to say. The lovely creature was, however, entirely ignorant of my calling; and whatever impression such a description would leave on the reader’s mind, it made none on mine, though in the second verse I was certainly much pleased with the fair punster. I wish you saw the engraving!


The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 13, Reuben Percy, John Timbs, 1829

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The psedonymous gentleman, W.H.H., was in receipt of one of those horrid “comics” or “vinegar valentines,” which have fortunately fallen out of favour, except with school bullies. They previously caused much mischief and heart-burning among the recipients, as told in this post.

A "vinegar valentine" from the Strong Museum of Play.

A “vinegar valentine” from the Strong Museum of Play.

The bay leaf ritual is also mentioned in this article, although one is uncertain whether “colonial” means that the custom found its way from Scotland to the states.


How Girls Did in Colonial Times

Norma Talmadge Treasures Letter Written by One of Ancestors Long Ago.

Speaking of St. Valentine’s Day!

Norma Talmadge claims the girls of colonial times had curious customs to win their sweethearts on the day dedicated to lovers. She can prove it, too, for hers is an extract from a lovely ancestor’s letter, now treasured among the Talmadge heirlooms:

“Last Friday was St. Valentine’s Day,” the long-ago lady wrote, “and the night before I got five bay leaves and pinned four on the corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle; then if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said, we should be married before the year was out. But to make sure I boiled an egg hard and took out the yolk and filled it with salt; and when I went to bed ate it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote out lovers’ names and rolled them up in clay and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our Valentine.”
Try it, girls, salt and all.
Seattle [WA] Daily Times 5 February 1922: p. 42

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.