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The Norfolk legend of Jack Valentine

Once upon a time, Valentine’s Day Eve was just as enchanting to the children of Norfolk as Christmas Eve, filled as it was with anticipation for the visit of Jack Valentine. Whether your family knew him as Jack, Father or Mother Valentine, the arrival of Valentine’s Day meant one thing for Norfolk children: a sprinkle of magic and gifts.


A tradition still observed by many Norfolk families – and by the Norfolk Folklore Society - the Jack Valentine ritual would see the elusive Jack disappear into thin air after knocking at the door and dropping off gifts. Sometimes Jack would simply knock and disappear, sometimes parcels were attached to a piece of string, and twitched out of children's grasp as they reached for them.

 

In the 1800s, children in the country would set out before dawn to sing rhymes in exchange for sweets, cakes and pennies, almost like today’s trick or treaters. “Good morrow, Valentine, God bless the baker, you’ll be the giver and I'll be the taker!” As soon as the sun rose, the children’s requests could be reasonably turned down as folklore had it that no gifts could be given to ‘sunburnt’ children.

 

Jack Valentine would deliver gifts on St Valentine's Eve. CREDIT: Shuck Zine / Matt Willis

A few decades later, in the mid-1800s, John Wodderspoon described February 14 in Norwich in some detail, highlighting the city’s affection for the venerable saint’s day. “The day appropriated to St. Valentine is kept with some peculiarity in the city of Norwich,” he wrote.

 

“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.”

 

Just as day follows night, the gifts left on Norfolk doorsteps on Valentine’s Eve weren’t universally charming: take a bow, Snatch Valentine.


Like a Dickens’ character, Snatch is the darker variation of Jack – he too knocks on doors after dark, he too leaves a gift for householders, the difference is that the gifts are either unwanted or not what they seem.

 

There are several variations as to what happens: perhaps a knock on the door is heard and a parcel is found on the doorstep…as you reach down to pick it up, it is whisked away and disappears. Perhaps a huge present would be discovered and taken indoors, only to discover that after tearing away layers and layers of paper, only a cruel comment on a piece of card was at its heart, or an empty box.

 

In Swaffham, Thomas Thiselton-Dyer’s book British Popular Customs Present and Past from 1900 recalls a tradition in the 19th century was to knock at the door on Valentine’s Eve and then hide to watch the householder looking in anticipation for a gift.

 

“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.”


Snatch Valentine would play tricks. CREDIT: Shuck Zine / Matt Willis

Folklorist Enid Porter wrote about Snatch in her 1974 book The Folklore of East Anglia: “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.”

 

While in Peter and Iona Opie’s 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, it noted: “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.

 

“…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.”

 

East Anglia is at the heart of St Valentine's Day. The earliest-known Valentine was sent from Norfolk, in 1477, from Topcroft, near Bungay: it worked, as Margaret Brews wrote to her 'right well-beloved Valentine' John Paston, who later became her husband.


 

Illustrations curtesy of Shuck Zine and Matt Willis. You can read more about Jack and Snatch in the LOVE issue of Shuck Zine, available HERE,

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