BE MINE. Make a valentine mailbox

``Be mine some of the time!'' ``You're my valentine!'' ``I love you!'' ``I like you more than I like our dog.'' ``To the sweetest pest!'' These lines are part of the caring fun that makes a family's Valentine Day celebration. And having a festive valentine mailbox is a fun addition to the day. Decorated boxes have long been linked with Valentine's Day. When you continue the tradition of the valentine mailbox, you're adding mystery, good humor, and the warmth of love to a usually cold and wintry season.

By the turn of the century, Valentine's Day had lost any connection it ever had with Christian martyrs or pagan festivals. Legend, however, says the ancient Roman festival called Lupercalia gave rise to the tradition of the decorated box we now associate with this day. In those days, young people elegantly inscribed their names and put them in a fancy urn. The names were then drawn in pairs and each pair exchanged poems and accompanied each other to the festival.

Later, 15th-century England had a similar tradition, but the box was a clay jug. After the United States Civil War, messages were sent to loved ones in small handmade boxes, since there was not the money to spend for gifts.

As the 20th century began, the sending of messages became all-important, and handmade cards were decorated with satin ribbon, lace, pressed flowers, embossing, and script lettering. Often families placed their valentine mailbox on the front steps so cards could be delivered more anonymously. In the 1840s Esther Howland, the first manufacturer of valentines in the United States, also provided decorations for valentine boxes.

Today the Valentine's Day celebration is one of affection mixed with good humor. Card manufacturers report that most cards are sold for mothers, wives, and teachers, followed by cards for children. Many school classrooms continue the tradition of having a valentine mailbox in the classroom for exchanging cards. So that each child gets a card, classrooms sometimes have an exchange of names for making cards to go in the box. This comes from a 1700s English tradition whereby on Valentine Eve a young man drew the name of young woman and pinned that name to his sleeve, later sending that young woman a card. Hence the phrase ``He was wearing his heart on his sleeve.''

Many families make a special valentine mailbox and keep it from year to year. Put your children to work on this project. There's still time before the big day arrives. Start with sturdy cardboard and provide fabric, ribbon, lace or simple paper doilies, and crayons for decorating. Magazines and wallpaper samples are good materials for the box and cards as well.

A slit large enough for envelopes and small gifts is essential, but it should be small enough to discourage peeking. And if you intend to reuse the box, the design should provide a way to open the box without destroying it. (A family we know has a box bottom that can be opened, but they reseal it each year with candle wax to prevent snooping!) Let the proud makers of the box sign their masterpiece on the side or bottom.

Stress the literary aspects of the holiday, using the occasion to put thoughts into writing. Homemade valentines are best -- especially if they contain rhymed or free-verse messages. Younger children can dictate their messages and then take over on artwork. Sometimes newspapers print pictures of old-fashioned cards. Ideas for illustrations can also be found in encyclopedias. The only rules are:

Messages should not be mean or hurtful.

Cards don't have to be mushy, but they should be caring.

Each person in the family makes a card for every other family member.

Grandparents and other relatives who love mail should always be remembered.

To add to the fun, parents might want to encourage some ``mystery cards,'' since everyone likes to speculate as to the real sender of ``guess who'' cards, an idea that goes back to the early 1800s. In those days, if you guessed the sender, he or she had to give you a little gift. ``Valentine, I love you when you smile! Guess who?'' was a message one child pinned on his room wall after Valentine's Day. One mom received a card saying, ``I love you for your lasagna! Guess who?'' It turned out to be a neighbor child who had stayed for supper one night.

Some parents use the occasion to write a ``love letter,'' one of caring, support, and appreciation to spouse and each child. This is the kind of letter one keeps and rereads -- the kind of sentiment that sometimes gets voiced too seldom. Parents I know who wrote these letters to their children in the past now say the children are writing such letters to them in return.

Put the valentine mailbox in the center of the supper table. Anticipation is heightened if someone picks it up each night to see how it's gaining weight. Valentines that come by mail can go in the box, too. One dad wraps a favorite candy bar for each family member and puts it in the box.

At supper on Valentine's Day, open the box and deliver the contents. Encourage children to share some of their messages -- they may want to keep some private -- since everyone likes to hear his poetry read aloud! Afterward the cards can be displayed around the table for several more meals before going into the scrapbook.

When our children were young, we added to the valentine tradition by always having a red-and-white supper. This requires a certain amount of culinary creativity.

After my attempts with celery soup, rare roast beef, mashed potatoes, and strawberry sundaes, the children decided one year to take on the project. Their dinner consisted of cranberry juice cocktail, hot dogs with ketchup, beets, cauliflower, and red Jell-O with whipped cream. Such is the substance of merry valentine memories.

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