On Feb. 14, 2002, Montpelier woke to a surprise. Photocopies of asymmetrical red hearts were plastered across windows of local shops and businesses, blanketing the town in love and inviting a sense of mystery.
The community reacted with delight, surprise, and an immediate desire to figure out who did it, but those with the intel weren’t talking.
No one knew whether or not this was going to be a one time thing, but the hearts showed up again the following year, and the year after that, and every year since, even during the blizzard of 2007 and throughout the global COVID pandemic. There was one year when it almost didn’t happen, but Montpelier High School students pitched in (with a lot of help from Capitol Plaza Hotel), and the magic continued. In fact, the event has grown to include local students, school staff members, community members, and businesses. It’s become enough of a tradition to warrant a Wikipedia page, news reports in Seven Days and on WCAX-TV, NBC5 TV, WDEV radio, (in The Bridge, of course), and a Facebook page.
”I don’t want to know who makes the magic happen and I hope no one ever spills the beans on the Phantom! I like to think that it has remained a secret because we all love and honor the mystery and magic of our beloved Valentine Phantom and want to keep alive the ‘Phantomness’ of such a special day,” said Linda Hogan, a local artist who said she looks forward to that “Phantomness” every year.
Rumors spread about who might be behind the annual act of love, but nobody knew if it was one person or a group, and how or why the hearts showed up seemingly everywhere.
Twenty-two years after it started, I got some of that top secret information in an interview with the current lead Phantom (also known as the Montpelier Valentine Phantom, or “MVP”), who has been actively involved in the mystery for the past 13 years.
“The mission has always been to bring creative joy and love to the people as a way to build a healthy, resilient community.” the Phantom told me.
The Valentine’s Day Phantom was “always a secret, not a prank,” the MVP said. The hearts represent hope, the Phantom said, because each year the community has hope that the magic will return, and almost every year since 2002 the hopes of children, families, and the community have been granted.
It’s become a much-anticipated Montpelier tradition to awaken on Valentine’s Day morning to see red hearts covering almost every window, door, and wall downtown. One Montpelierite who has been involved since year two tells us that when the hearts first were put up it was a smaller quantity of just about 500, and throughout the past two decades that number gradually increased exponentially as the amount of “Phans” increased.
“The MVP feels huge love and gratitude that the tradition matters to the people in the community and that, in turn, the community pays forward the love it experiences on Feb. 14,” the Phantom said.
How the Magic Happens
The Phantom has a number of “Phantom Phans” who work on various steps of the Valentine’s Day magic that Montpelierites have come to expect. The MVP said they will not say who the Phantom Phans are, but noted there is a “lot of love” from many local teachers, staff members, and administrators across the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools district, along with the city and several local businesses. These helpers are very involved in the process, but the Phantom remains a mystery, even to them.
I asked the MVP who helps with the process, and got the concise reply: “Phantom cannot disclose the ‘Who’<3.”
Two major components go into getting ready for Valentine’s Day, according to the Phantom: prepping the hearts, and the display process (which includes a surprise thrown in each year to keep the town on its toes). It takes about seven weeks of preparation, and about 6,000 hearts go up each year. But that wouldn’t happen without another mystery presence: the printer.
Eric Bigglestone, co-owner of Capitol Stationers, remembers the first year the hearts went up.
“It sure was a treat and surprise that first year, as nobody in town had any idea who was behind it. We had a photocopy service back at that time, so many folks would ask us if we knew, but we didn’t do color copies so it certainly wasn’t us doing the printing. That led to inquiries at Mailboxes Etc (which soon after became Capitol Copy) and Minuteman Press, both of which did color copying in town. If one of them did provide the printing, they were keeping it close to their chest, as it still remained a mystery as to who was behind it, as it still is a mystery.”
A Blizzard Can’t Stop Love
The hearts have kept coming, even when the 2007 Valentine’s Day blizzard struck and most people assumed there would be no hearts that year.
“It crippled the state but yet the hearts in downtown Montpelier were out in full force, specifically, giant red hearts on the Statehouse lawn as well as banners. The huge red hearts hung on the tower of City Hall, which was pretty spectacular to see as well,” says Bigglestone.
The current MVP also recalled the Valentine’s Day blizzard of ‘07, as did Linda Hogan.
“My favorite memory was seeing the first very large heart banner in 2007 that the Phantom had hung at the front entrance of the Statehouse,” Hogan says. “It is a reminder from the Phantom that all you need is love. Each year I pick one up that has blown off a window and give it to my son. It is our tradition.”
Pandemic Schmandemic; Hearts Prevail
The COVID-19 pandemic that caused global shut-downs and mass isolation didn’t stop the Phantom, either.
Maureen Dwyer, of Barre Town recalls: “One of my favorite memories is from three years ago, and it was the first year having a COVID Valentine’s Day. I remember seeing everyone look so happy and cheerful seeing all the hearts everywhere. It made me very happy to see everyone look so joyful.”
In 2021 — two years into the ongoing pandemic — Phantom Phans spread the hearts up the hill to the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, “hoping to bring light and love to sick patients.”
The MVP wants readers to know “There is a commitment to making the magic every year and Phantom Phans are always needed. The MVP Facebook page, the Montpelier Valentine Phantom Phan page, is a great way to let the Phantom know you want to be a part of the magic, or email the Phantom at email@example.com.
I grew up in Montpelier and remember being in kindergarten and seeing the hearts and being so excited the first year I fully understood what the hearts were. Every year after that, I wanted to know who did it and why, but little five-year-old me couldn’t pull a “Nancy Drew” and figure out who the Phantom was, so I decided to collect a heart each year as a keepsake, hoping one day I could solve the mystery.
Savannah Yevchak is a Montpelier High School student who recently completed an internship at The Bridge through the MHS community-based learning program.