WATERVILLE — After her son got married several years ago, Ellen Tompkins wanted a reason to wear her mother-of-the-groom dress one more time. Her friend Carlene Bickford, whose son was also recently married, felt the same way.

“We were talking and we thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to wear our dresses again?'” Tompkins said. “Then we thought, where would you go around here, in Waterville, Maine, dressed up in these gowns and when would you do it?”

They decided it would be on Valentine’s Day, and planned to surprise their husbands with a gourmet meal prepared by a professional chef at the Tompkins’ home in Waterville.

“They were like little kids, because we had banished them from the house that day and told them not to come back until 5 o’clock. When they came back they were like kids on their first date because they didn’t know what was going on,” said Tompkins, 65. “And that was the beginning of it.”

Twelve years after that first Valentine’s Day dinner, the couples continue to surprise each other. Their tradition has grown – a total of nine couples have participated over the years – and the husbands and wives now take turns planning the holiday.

“The next year, we said, ‘Oh, we wonder what the husbands are going to plan for us?’ So they planned something,” Tompkins recalled.

In 2004, the men, Ronald Bickford and Peter Tompkins, surprised their wives with dinner at Lauria’s Restaurant in Augusta.

In 2005, two more couples joined in the surprise – a progressive dinner planned by the women and held at each of their homes.

There have been dinners in Brunswick, Freeport and Portland. A surprise stop for champagne and heart-shaped sandwiches at a rest stop. An a cappella concert by a Gardiner choral group at the Tompkins’ home. And a silent movie at Merrill Auditorium in Portland followed by fireside desserts.

In 2008, Valentine’s Day fell on a Thursday and the men invited their wives to a dressed-down affair at Dairy Queen.

“I was mad because I thought we would be going out for a real dinner,” Tompkins recalled.

She got her wish two days later, when the husbands surprised their wives with a three-course meal at DiMillo’s in Portland.

The two-part surprise came back to them the next year, when the women took their husbands to Rapid Ray’s in Saco for hot dogs, but followed up with a surprise stay at a bed and breakfast in South Berwick.

The tradition is something that everyone in the group looks forward to all year, despite the challenge of trying to keep the plans a secret from their spouses, said Carlene Bickford of Oakland.

“We always manage to keep it a secret,” she said. “I always share things with my husband, so I find it very hard. I have to work really hard at being tight-lipped and mysterious, and that’s part of the fun.”

Ellen Tompkins and Ronald Bickford have known each other since childhood and for a long time attended the same church. Many of the couples who have joined the group also know one another through different churches, Bickford said.

“We enjoy each other’s company. There have been times when we, as the Valentine’s Day group, have done things throughout the year just to reconnect,” Tompkins said. “I think it’s because we all have things in common that we can enjoy each others’ company.”

Tompkins and her husband have been married for 43 years, and she said they enjoy spending the holiday with other couples.

“I think it’s a nice tribute to know that marriage is still alive and well, and that there is love even for people that have been married for 40-plus years,” she said.

“If we added up all the years of marriage among the people that have participated, it would probably be close to 200 years.”