The celebration of St. Valentine's Day can be a family affair. It's true that the 14th of February -- a religious feast day for a blind Christian martyr -- has evolved into a high-spirited holiday when lovers can publicly wear their hearts on their sleeves, place obscure messages in newspaper personal columns and send balloon bouquets to one another without appearing or feeling foolish.
If you don't want to be the only one remembering that romance is the elixir of life, you can make this holiday into an annual celebration of home, sweet home. This year St. Valentine's Day falls on a Sunday, a perfect time to recreate an old-fashioned observance of Love's Own Day from dawn to dusk:
Begin the celebration at breakfast with heart-shaped cinnamon toast and strawberry muffins. (Nesting set of six tin heart cookie cutters, $8; cast iron heart muffin pan, $19, Williams-Sonoma at Mazza Gallerie.) A plain red tablecloth becomes romantic with large heart-shaped paper lace doilies as place mats. A basket of baby's breath with assorted heart ornaments makes a festive centerpiece.
Custom has it that on St. Valentine's Day the birds select their mates, so have the children prepare a wedding supper for them: peanut butter balls with bird seed, raisins and chopped nuts. Chill them in the freezer for several hours, cover them with nylon netting (recycled produce bags work well) and then hang them on branches.
Make old-fashioned Valentines for all the members of the family and friends who will join you for "Cupid's Tea" Sunday afternoon. This year more than 850 million commercial valentines are expected to be exchanged. But in today's impersonal, mass-produced age, the handcrafted card, especially for family members, is a rare token of affection. What happy home circle memories can be fashioned out of paper, glue and imagination!
First assemble all your materials. Quality paper lace doilies are a must -- heart-shaped, round and square in white, ivory, red, pink and gilt (Hallmark Cards French lace paper doilies, $1.75-$2). Of course, you will need authentic late-19th-century illustrations so popular on Victorian Valentines -- hearts and flowers, cherubs, fans, doves, little children, animals, birds and sweet messages (Dover Books publishes "Victorian Romantic Stickers and Seals," $3.50; "Ready-to-Use Victorian Color Stickers," $2.95; and "Victorian Animal Stickers and Seals," $3.50; available at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building Gift Shop).
If you need help with writing your loving sentiments, a reproduction Victorian card that unfolds to a banner offers "100 Ways to Say I Love You!" ($5, Smithsonian American History Museum Shop).
Now bring out embellishments -- ribbons, lace trimming, silk fringe, pieces of floral fabric, as well as an assortment of craft materials -- card or poster board, colored paper, wrapping paper, heart-shaped gift tags. Quality art paper that has been given a watercolor wash offers a dainty background. Don't forget glue, rubber cement, double-sided tape and scissors (safety edged for small children).
When our valentines are completed, it's time to "post" them. Take a large square gift box with a lid, cover each part with Valentine's Day wrapping paper: shiny red hearts or flowers. Decorate it with doilies, ribbons, and crepe paper ruffles, then cut a slit in the top, so that everyone can deposit their "mail." If Valentines arrive before the big day from friends and family far away, save them to go into the box as well.
Finally, it is time for a delectable, lavish, late-afternoon spread known as "Cupid's Tea." Although the family tea party has all but vanished, bringing it back for special occasions, and then easing it into Sunday afternoons, is a way to restore this sublime ritual.
For Valentine's Day a heart-shaped cake with pink icing is tradition, as are heart-shaped open-face sandwiches (cream cheese and jam); miniature heart-shaped scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserves; almond raspberry crisps, lemon dainties and heart linzertortes. Charming party favors of gold foil paper cornucopias filled with penny candy motto hearts, chocolate kisses and pink mints rest near each place setting.
If you would like to give a Cupid's Tea party, Tasha Tudor's All For Love (Philomel Books, G.P. Putnam, New York, $15.95) is an inspirational Valentine's Day anthology of poems, letters, songs, stories and family customs, including directions for homemade greeting cards, gifts and recipes.
For the perfect primer to the custom of afternoon tea, you'll want to delve into A Proper Tea (St. Martin's Press, $13.95), written and illustrated by Joanna Isles. It will convince you that a tea is just the tonic yourfamily needs to restore domestic bliss.
Family traditions, such as a home-grown celebration of Love's Own Day, require an investment of creative and emotional energy. But most of all, they require commitment. Like enduring love, they are true affairs of the heart.
Sarah Ban Breathnach writes about Victorian family life in Mrs. Sharp's Traditions, a syndicated column.