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Welsh love spoons and their symbols – a Celtic “I love you”

A hand-carved love spoon, also written as lovespoon, from Wales (Welsh: llwy caru; plural llwyau caruis the perfect romantic gift for Valentine’s Day, to mark an engagement or a wedding anniversary. While love spoons originally symbolised a marriage proposal, today they are also given as presents for children to parents, as simple expressions of friendship and on important life occasions. Many people also like to buy them as a souvenir of a visit to Wales or to display in the home to show their Welsh roots.

350 years of tradition

Love spoons on display at the Welsh Shop in Cardiff Copyright K. Williams, all rights reserved

Love spoons on display at Castle Welsh Crafts in Cardiff
Copyright K. Williams, all rights reserved

Love spoons have become particularly associated with Wales. The oldest known example dates from 1667. It is displayed with others at the National History Museum, St Fagans, near Cardiff. They have however been produced all round Europe, especially in the Celtic countries, such as Brittany where the Breton name for them translates as “marriage spoons”.

Originally, a lovespoon was a token of love carved out of wood by a young man for the girl he wanted to be his wife. He would spend hours making the very best carving that he could and then present it to his beloved. If she accepted the spoon, this showed that she accepted entering into a relationship with him. Some people think this tradition is the origin of the word “spooning”.

Here is a song sung by Lorraine King about the old custom:

Buy a love spoon for someone special

A demonstration of skills as well as of love

Farm workers carved their love spoons during the long winter evenings, or while they pastured animals, while sailors worked on them during lonely moments on long sea voyages. A single piece of wood was used for carving the spoon. Sycamore was the most popular, but wood from apple, cherry, yew, boxwood and oak was also used. The earliest lovespoons were fairly simple, but with time they became ever more elaborate. An elaborate and complex carving not only demonstrated the extent of the young man’s love, but also showed him to have handicraft skills that would be useful in the home.

They were not meant to be used as practical utensils for cooking or eating. This can be seen from the existence of some double and even triple spoons, which are totally impractical as utensils. They were hung on the wall as a visual reminder of the love between the couple. They generally vary in length from about 3 inches to about 3 feet, although the largest hand-carved lovespoon in the world (displayed at Castle Welsh Crafts in Cardiff) is a LOT larger:

largest lovespoon in world

The largest love spoon in the world is 44 feet long and carved from a single sycamore tree. This combined picture shows the bowl and part of the carved chain.
Copyright K. Williams, all rights reserved

Symbols used on love spoons

Each carver would use symbols representing the meaning his love relationship held for him, what he had to bring to it, and what expectations he had from it. Some of these derive from the agricultural or nautical background of the maker, while some are personal and unique.

If you want to buy a love spoon for your beloved, you may wish to select one with symbols that have most meaning to you. As well as browsing through ranges of ready-made lovespoons, you can also possible to commission a skilled craftsman to carve a special one with your own very personal symbols.

The following are some of the symbols used most frequently on Welsh love spoons. Two or more are often combined into a single design. The image shows a spoon with the first three symbols on the list.

Design combining hearts, padlock and wheel. By Jongleur100 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Design combining hearts, padlock and wheel.
By Jongleur100 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Heart: the traditional symbol of love, visual expression of the statement “I give my heart to you”. Double spoons often have a heart carved into each bowl to signify the mutual exchange of promises.

Padlock: a promise of faithfulness, also a symbol of security

Wheel: either a ship’s wheel or a wagon wheel signified a promise to steer the relationship on a safe course

Bell: hopes of wedding bells

Keys: these could appear with a padlock or with a keyhole, the meaning being that the beloved was given the keys to the heart of the carver

Birds: love birds

Ball/s in a cage: the number of balls signified the number of children desired

Chain links: a wish to be together for all time

Diamond: hope for wealth or good fortune

Comma or paisley shape: the soul and a symbol of extremely deep love, “soul mates”

Spade: willingness to work

Horseshoe: good luck

Cross: faith

Anchor: steadfastness, coming home to stay

Vine or leaves: growth of love, evergreen love, with fruit to symbolise fruitfulness

Twisted rope: oneness, union

Dragon: protection, also a symbol of Wales

Ship: smooth passage through life

Shield: protection

Harp: music, harmony, also a symbol of Wales

Tree: strength and fertility

You can even try carving a lovespoon yourself!