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  • Nikki Stebbing

The Enchanting Tale of Jack Valentine: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysterious Norfolk Valentine's Day Tradition!

Norfolk is home to many fascinating legends, but one that stands out is the mysterious figure of Jack Valentine, an enchanting tale known only to the county which has been told for over 200 years. Inspired by this dandy character who visits homes on Valentine's Eve, I have created two whimsical illustrations of my own interpretation to add to my Valentine’s collection. But who exactly is Jack Valentine?

Mysterious man in a top hat, black jacket wearing red roses for Valentine's Day
Jack Valentine: The Norfolk Legend

Every year on the 13th of February (or Valentine's Eve) in Norfolk, children and adults alike eagerly await Jack Valentine’s arrival. The tradition is similar to that of Santa Claus, but instead of delivering presents down the chimney on Christmas Eve, Jack Valentine knocks on the doors of families under the cover of darkness and leaves behind small anonymous gifts on the threshold before disappearing into thin air. Despite nobody having seen him, Jack Valentine is often depicted as a mysterious ghost or spirit presence wandering the streets on Valentine’s Eve wearing a top hat and cloak and carrying a cane. So, what sort of gifts does Jack Valentine leave?

Jack Valentine Valentine's Linen Gift Bag with hare in top hat & tails
Jack 'Rabbit' Valentine Linen Gift Bag
Jack Valentine Valentine's Linen Gift Bag with dog in top hat & tails
Jack 'Russell' Valentine Linen Gift Bag

Jack Valentine’s gifts are often small, but they are always thoughtful and well-chosen such as sweets, small toys and stationery, though it isn’t unknown for him to leave more extravagant gifts such as vases, shawls, jewellery boxes and even a writing desk or two! Each gift is left on doorsteps or windowsills before disappearing into the night. But this kind-hearted character is also known to have a mischievious side. Sometimes Jack Valentine plays the prankster, leaving gifts with string attached, pulling the present away as the grateful recipient reaches for it. He has also been known to leave lumps of coal or meaningless scribbles in a beautifully wrapped box. Perhaps those people are considered to be on the Naughty List! But where did Jack Valentine come from?

Antique map of Norfolk county, UK
Antique map of Norfolk county, UK

According to legend, Jack Valentine first appeared in Norfolk in the 19th century. Many stories surround Jack Valentine, but the most popular one suggests that he was a mysterious benefactor who helped the poor and needy. Over time, Jack Valentine became a beloved figure in Norfolk folklore. Children would eagerly await his visit each year, and adults would look forward to the small tokens of appreciation he left behind. His gifts were said to be a symbol of love and kindness, and they helped to bring the community together in a spirit of generosity and goodwill. Despite his popularity, Jack Valentine remained a mysterious figure. No one knew where he came from, or why he chose to visit Norfolk on Valentine's Eve. Some speculated that he was a ghost, while others believed he was a wandering spirit who had taken up residence in the area. Others joined in with the tradition of gift giving on Valentine’s Eve, and by the 19th and early 20th century, it became big business in Norfolk. Records of the era refer to thousands of pounds being spent on Valentine’s gifts, much more than at Christmas and Easter, with shops taking on extra staff to help cope with the demand. So, what is my experience of Jack Valentine?

Jack Russell terrier in top hat and tails with a heart gift and cane
Jack 'Russell' Valentine, illustrated by Nikki Stebbing
Hare in top hat and tails holding a heart gift and cane
Jack 'Rabbit' Valentine, illustrated by Nikki Stebbing

The origin of Jack Valentine is shrouded in mystery, but his legend has been passed down through generations of Norfolk families, my own family included. My sister and I learned of Jack Valentine as children in the 1980s. Every Valentine’s Eve the doorbell would ring, but when we opened the door, no one was there. All that was left behind was a gift bag of sweets, novelty pencils, sharpeners and brightly coloured erasers amongst other trinkets. Mysteriously Dad was nowhere to be seen! The tradition continued throughout our childhood years, but just like elsewhere in Norfolk, as the years went by, the legend of Jack Valentine began to fade. His visits became less frequent, and fewer people remembered the tradition until his legacy returned during the Coronavirus pandemic. The City of Norwich began a ‘Bring Back Jack’ campaign, encouraging people to leave gifts for one another and share online messages of thanks, love and support to those we cared about, missed and hadn’t seen for some time. But what can you do to join in the tradition?

Card with heart shaped Valentine's ceramic ornament
Valentine Keepsake Ornament with Plantable Card
Gift Box with heart shaped Valentine's ceramic ornament
Valentine Keepsake Ornament with Gift Box

It was a magical experience that left my sister and I excited every Valentine’s Eve, and now as an illustrator, I have created a collection inspired by the nostalgia of this tradition, but with my own unique whimsical interpretations of Jack Valentine capturing his spirit to transport you back to those childhood memories. Having my own Jack Russell, George, as my muse meant I couldn’t resist creating a Jack ‘Russell’ Valentine range for dog lovers and our all important fur babies, and for the whimsical wildlife lovers, a Jack ‘Rabbit’ Valentine range. Whether you are looking for a gift idea for your Valentine, Galentine, Palentine or Pawlentine, I have just the thing from gallery quality giclée prints, keepsake ornament cards, linen gift bags, and linen flags. All of my gifts are hand printed and handmade using my unique hand painted Indian ink and watercolour illustrations and can be personalised for that extra thoughtful touch.

Jack Valentine Valentine's Linen flag with tulle pom poms & ribbons with hare in top hat & tails
Jack 'Rabbit' Valentine Linen Flag
Jack Valentine Valentine's Linen flag with tulle pom poms & ribbons with dog in top hat & tails
Jack 'Russell' Valentine Linen Flag

Whether you believe in the origins of Jack Valentine, or simply enjoy the tradition of leaving small gifts for others, the act of spreading kindness and joy is always a welcome one, particularly during the long, dark days of winter. So why not start a new tradition in your own community this Valentine's Eve and spread a little love and cheer to those around you.

If you have a story of Jack Valentine to share, leave a comment below.

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