Confess your sins, and a romantic time for love birds

This Victorian Valentine reminds us to feed the pigeons.
This Victorian Valentine reminds us to feed the pigeons.

by Heather Elvidge

You could blame it on a soft-hearted third-century martyr, but you’d be wrong. Saturday’s great festival of retailing happens because of birds.

There’s an old belief, common in Chaucer’s time, that birds choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. Bird couples became an established motif in stories and love poetry, an alternative to that old troublemaker, Cupid.

There is some truth in it – birds do pair up in February. Lengthening days spur on male birds to sing which confirms their territory and attracts females. But when there’s a cold snap all that stops, as birds concentrate on finding food.

Robins will venture into garden tubs, where the compost underneath the plants can be softer than the frozen soil. Blackbirds turn over the leaf litter under hedges, where worms, larvae or slugs may be hiding. Wrens and dunnocks search walls and flowerbeds for insects.

Birds look quite chubby when it’s chilly, plumping out their feathers to trap a layer of warmer air. On freezing nights they need a sheltered roost, perhaps a dense bush or an ivy-clad wall. Wrens prefer a hole, and many of these little birds will squeeze into it to keep each other warm.

This is a good time to begin feeding wild birds, to help them into breeding condition. They appreciate water too, although it’s difficult to keep the ice off on days when the temperature never rises above freezing point.

Once the cold spell is over birds quickly revert to courting. Whether they’ll be doing that on Valentine’s Day depends on Jack Frost.

Skipping Day

Shrove Tuesday falls early this year, on February 17. It’s the last day before Lent, the 40 days that lead up to Easter.

The original point of the day was to confess your sins — be “shriven” — then spend the rest of the day doing those things that would soon be forbidden. So there were cakes, waffles and pancakes to eat, bacon, eggs and fried collops of meat to get through, followed by an afternoon spent in unruly pursuits.

Nineteenth-century schoolchildren and apprentices were allowed the afternoon off, a rare treat. In Scarborough they made for the foreshore to play football and other games, so naturally Shrove Tuesday became Ball Day. We call it Skipping Day, because that’s the main activity now.

The town has a long tradition – at least 111 years – of communal long-rope skipping on Shrove Tuesday. While children used to skip with clotheslines or the metal hoops from barrels, Scarborough’s custom involved thick, heavy ropes that took two adults to turn. Most likely it began in the fishing community where there were ropes to raise sails, ropes for hauling nets and pots.

A less popular activity is for boys to grab girls and dump them in the sea. If you don’t fancy a skip or a soak, there’s always the day’s oldest custom to fall back on.

People were tossing pancakes, and failing to catch them, in the early 1600s. The signal to start frying was the ringing of church bells; these Pancake Bells are still heard in a few places, including Scarborough. Let’s hope the weather smiles on those pancake racers and sea-front skippers.