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  • A Folklorist’s Cryptic Valentine Tradition

    The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) honors traditions in all forms. Our Smithsonian Folkways Recordings issues albums and tracks of traditional music and song. Our Smithsonian Folklife Festival presents living bearers of traditions on the National Mall each summer. We believe that understanding traditions helps to strengthen communities and reinforce our shared humanity.

    So when a holiday like Valentine’s Day comes around, it’s not surprising that CFCH has its own office tradition to celebrate the occasion. Here’s how it works:

    1. Betty Belanus, one of our curators and folklorists, cuts heart-shaped valentines out of recycled calendars from the year before.
    2. She cuts random phrases out of magazines and catalogs and pastes them to the hearts.
    3. Fellow staff members must blindly pick one of the “cryptic valentines” out of a brown paper bag.
    4. Staff may choose to display said valentine in their work area.

    Click on the image above to view full slideshow

    The origins of and explanations for many traditions remain lost to folklorists. Why do some people knock on wood to prevent a reversal of fortune? Why do some people hang circular wreaths on their doors during certain holidays? No one can be certain if these traditions began in one place and then spread to other cultural groups (a process known to folklorists as monogenesis and diffusion) of if they started independently in several places (a process known as polygenesis, which Carl Jung’s theory of collective unconscious may explain).

    In the case of the CFCH cryptic valentines, we can be certain it’s monogenesis, even if there hasn’t yet been much diffusion. The tradition began at some point in the 1990s.

    “The origins of this tradition are foggy, but I know it’s been a while,” Betty said. “I’m not sure why I started doing this—maybe as a creative outlet after the holiday season was over, maybe as a fun way to recycle old calendars and old magazines instead of throwing them out. As for the method, I cut random phrases that jump out to me from different magazines and catalogs. I don’t look for particular phrases, or phrases that might go together, just random ones that speak to me somehow.”

    The results are poetic, pithy, quirky enigmatic, ironic, ingenious, and perhaps even ironically accurate in some instances, which may explain why they are often on public display. Take a walk around the CFCH office and see:

    It’s simply the best
    Step on it

    Don’t stop
    To understand why
    Take the picture, damn it, take the picture!

    Tastes like
    Smells like a bowling alley
    About to be a thing

    Peanut butter
    Takes a detour
    From the mariner

    “I ask everyone to pick a valentine randomly, and I believe they were meant to get the one they picked. It’s fate,” Betty observes. “But [name redacted] sometimes cheats and puts the first one back if he doesn’t like the one he gets. He’s like that. New interns and staff members are sometimes baffled by the practice, but then they usually get into the spirit.”

    James Deutsch is a program curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The valentine he received in 2007 (and yes, he does catalog them by year) states,

    From today on
    Part of your brain

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