|Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores|
TO DECLARE HIS LOVE for his sweetheart, man has always been
resourceful and creative. In the early days of Great Britain, suitors expressed their feelings for their Dulcineas by exchanging arrays of love tokens. In Wales, rustics and seafarers were often illiterate and they found it easier to convey their feelings using a wooden spoon aptly known as a love spoon.
No documentary evidence exists that suggests the acceptance of an offer of a love spoon by a suitor for his beloved will develop into a betrothal. It is, however, generally believed that the offer forms part of the prelude to courtship and represents a desire to form a liaison between the two parties.
The origin of the custom is obscure and thought to date back to the 16th century. The carving of wooden spoons as a pastime to relief the tedious long dark evenings became very popular in Welsh farms. Some of these spoons were undoubtedly designed for use, but from the 17th to 19th century, the highly decorated spoon presented by a carver, as a token of love became a common feature of rural life. While the utilitarian spoon represents the will of its maker to help himself, the so-called love spoon symbolizes the desire to help one’s loved one.
A wealth of imagination is reflected in the carving of these mementos of love. Their bowls, gradually, became virtually expandable while their handles grew to enormous proportions. An overflowing blend of symbols and patterns elaborately carved into an ever-increasing complication of design and dimension, they became works of art in their own right.
Sycamore was the most commonly used wood. According to tradition, it was to be winter felled as this ensured a pale lustre, free of all blemishes and stains. Though extensively used, sycamore was not essential: oak, birch, lime, apple, pear, peach and cherry wood, ash, yew and mahogany would handsomely fulfil the same purpose. It is important to use a dense, knot-free, straight-grained piece of wood.
The carver commences with the shaping of the spoon with a sharp axe or hatchet, followed by the smoothing of the bowl with a drawknife and a spokeshave; the scoop was created with the help of a gouge or and old traditional tool known as twca cam. The spoon has to be carved out of one single piece of wood, and this applied to all the parts like links and balls that had to be shaped out of the original log. The elaborate and symbolic shaping and cutting of the large handle in fretwork style emphasize most the carver’s feelings for his belle. Originally it was used for engraving the name of one’s darling as well as the date the spoon was given, but with the passing of time, it was used to depict a likeness to the loved one. Occasionally, it was completed with a rectangular or circular panel, and a swivel shackle or chain link symbolizing loyalty and fidelity would be attached to it. In the hands of the most talented and imaginative makers, the spoon handle was transformed into a fretted, clotted and pierced sculpture. Some handles were carved to represent pairs of spectacles (“I love the one I see”), while others were hollowed out and had small spheres running freely in a slotted cavity (these characterized as a general rule the number of children the carver wished to have). Some spoons even had two bowls sprouting from one handle (“we two make one”).
A wealth of symbols was carved all over the spoon. The heart, quite naturally, was the most conventional sign and it was to be a full heart carved into the depth of the spoon. A merely fretted heart could imply the lack of real desire, linked hearts meant love reciprocated, two hearts on a spoon indicated that both the giver and recipient felt the same about each other, while a heart-shaped bowl expressed the wish to share a full and bountiful life. Wheels and spades suggested work and service. With a lock the carver let his maiden know that he wished to lock her in his heart, and with a key, keyhole and house, he told her his heart and house were hers to unlock. Anchors were often carved on spoons suggesting that the donor had found a place where he wishes to settle. The representation of growth was often depicted through a vine tree and similar motifs.
Far less conventional features were those spoons with coal and sugar glued onto the wood, both being symbols of domestic bliss: coal stands for warmth and sugar for sweetness. Horseshoes, dolphins, diamonds and four-leave clovers epitomized good luck and fortune. The dragon (the symbol of Wales and a sign of protection), ropes and cables, windows, animals, flowers, the daystar and crosses were also frequently used.
Today, a handful of artisans continue the age-old tradition. The love spoon, however, is no longer a Celtic symbol of betrothal. It is being hand-fashioned for special occasions such as marriages, birthdays, anniversaries, and carved as gifts of friendship, affection and love.