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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Lovespoons?

Recently I was asked why we carve a lovespoon each year for the West Coast Eisteddfod.  This wasn't a cheeky 'what-the-hell-do-you-want-to-go-and-do-that-for' question, but a genuine question from a non-Welsh viewer who had stumbled across the blog by accident and was curious about the custom.

So for those who aren't really familiar with the tradition and those who have been bullshitted by all the website souvenir sites, here's the lovespoon story in a very brief nutshell.

Lovespoons are but one of several wooden romantic tokens which enjoyed their heyday during the period of approximately 1650-1900. Each was carved as a gift by a lovestruck young man and would have been presented to the girl (or in some cases, girls) who had captured their hearts.   The craft flourished throughout Europe but today, is only practiced in a meaningful way by the Welsh.

Nobody knows for sure where lovespoon carving originated, but strong traditions developed in Wales, Sweden and Norway and examples have been collected from most European countries.  The oldest Welsh spoon was created in 1667 and is housed in the collection of the National History Museum of Wales at St Fagans near Cardiff.  A German spoon dated 1664 is housed in the collections of the German National Museum in Nuremburg, and as far as I have been able to tell, is the oldest dated lovespoon currently known.   It is unlikely that the custom dates back much further than the early 1600's despite wonderfully romantic theories of the custom having a direct link with the Celts of yore.   Most of the romantic wood tokens originated around the same period and both the social and economic situation of earlier times make it unlikely they date back much before 1600.

In Scandinavia the custom seemed to be for the spoons to be a bit more conservative in design than the Welsh spoons.   Many were quite simply carved and were given as 'feeler gifts' by young men who wanted to check the lay of the land and see what the reaction would be from one or more girl.  These spoons were often less elaborately carved than spoons given when the young man was more certain of his passion and expected a more positive response from the young lady of his fancy.

It has been suggested that acceptance of a lovespoon was a betrothal promise, but this has never been proven and it is far more likely that acceptance of the spoon merely indicated mutual interest and a 'green light' for a courtship to begin.

Unlike the Welsh, the Scandinavian tradition also embraced the idea of 'Wedding spoons.' Strictly speaking, these are not lovespoons in the tightest definition of the tradition as they were only brought out once the romance had been finalized by the wedding.   In Norway, an elaborate double bowled spoon connected by a long length of chain link was used when the Wedding Couple ate their first meal together, symbolizing the wife's new status as married woman and housewife.
In Sweden, the wedding spoon's purpose was often much less serious and a number of 'joke spoons' were developed for use by the couple at their festivities.   The reversed bowls found on many of the spoons would have made it difficult for the couple to eat together and would have made for a comical spectacle....especially with the wedding party likely being well fuelled by alcoholic beverages!

The Welsh lovespoon has always been the more  exuberant cousin to the European spoons though.   Generally the Welsh spoons were much less conservative in design and embraced a much wider variety of symbols.  Although it is unlikely that the spoons could have been 'read like a book' by the mostly illiterate rural folk who gave and received them, it is likely that many symbols would have been well known and would have had meaning. Hearts for love, diamonds for prosperity, keys and locks to indicate security or a heart held captive were all easily understood and as spoon carving developed, more symbols would have likely been created. Modern Welsh lovespoon carving has added a variety of 'traditional' symbols which were unknown on historical examples.....but that is tradition....always in change!

Today, handcarved lovespoons are heirloom quality gifts which are given at engagements, weddings, anniversaries and a host of other occasions where a gift of deep sentiment is required.  Although the symbolism may have changed throughout the years, the relevance of a lovingly carved spoon given with sentimental or romantic intent is as strong as ever.   As a symbol of Wales and the warmth and passion of the Welsh people, it would be pretty hard to find a more iconic tradition than the lovespoon.    So THAT is why we carve one each year.

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  1. I'd heard of lovespoons but didn't know it was such a widespread tradition. Thank you for this informative article.

  2. Nice article...could have done without the language...would have shared it.