Culinary Curiosities: History of Valentine’s Day
Halloween has its fun-size candy bars, Easter has its Cadbury Creme Eggs, but it’s a pretty box full of chocolate nougats, creams, and cordials on Valentine’s Day that really gets hearts a-fluttering. Over half of Americans—55 percent according to the National Retail Federation—celebrate the romantic mid-winter holiday. And the National Confectioners Association estimates that chocolate accounts for 75 percent of all candy sales, candy conversation hearts notwithstanding. Why do we choose chocolate to make the holiday, well, more sweet?
The origins of Valentine’s Day have their roots in bloody (literally) Christian and Roman legend. Hard historical facts are difficult to come by, but there are several traditional stories about a martyr named Valentine who was executed by Roman Emperor Claudius II in the third century. One legend claims that Valentine performed clandestine weddings in defiance of the emperor, who believed unmarried soldiers were better warriors. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s treachery, he had him killed. Another tale suggests that Valentine was imprisoned for trying to convert Romans to Christianity. He fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and miraculously cured her blindness through prayer. She and her whole family converted, but Valentine was beheaded. Before his death, it is said he wrote the girl a letter signed, “from your Valentine,” which is still a romantic signature for card-givers today.
Valentine’s Day may also draw from the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, observed on February 15. On that day, goats and dogs were sacrificed and their hides cut into long strips that were dipped in the animals’ blood. Male priests of Lupercus, the god of fertility, would run through the streets striking women with the hides to encourage fertility and blessings in the coming year. There was also a tradition of single men and women putting their names in a jar to be randomly selected and paired off. Agreeable matches resulted in marriage, or, some temporary fun for the duration of the festival. But in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius outlawed the pagan celebration and coincidentally declared Valentine a saint.
In the following centuries, St. Valentine’s Day became a popular time to exchange notes, cards, and small gifts as tokens of love and regard. It wasn’t until the 19th century in Victorian England that the celebration of romantic love and the gift of chocolate became linked. Up until that time, chocolate in Europe was mostly consumed in liquid form. “Drinking chocolate” was often a bitter beverage, consumed for energy, for medicinal purposes (often to relieve constipation), or just to be fashionable. But Richard Cadbury, of Cadbury candy fame, refined a process to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans, making a tastier drinking chocolate. The excess cocoa butter was quickly repurposed into several varieties of sweet “eating chocolate” that Cadbury sold in decorated boxes that he designed. The “Fancy Boxes” debuted in 1861 and, just a few years later in 1868, the first heart-shaped box proved perfect for Valentine’s Day. Richard and his brother George Cadbury, turned around the failing confectionery business with a newfound focus on successful packaging and marketing of chocolates.
Improvements in chocolate manufacturing made it an affordable luxury for the middle class. Nineteen-year-old Philadelphian Stephen Whitman started selling fine confections in 1842. In 1871 Whitman offered “Instantaneous Chocolates” in a tin followed in 1912 by the beloved “Whitman’s Sampler.” Another famous name in candy, Russell Stover and his wife Clara, started making chocolate dipped goodies out of their home in 1923. In short order they moved the operation out of their bungalow kitchen and into factories to meet growing demand. The popular Russell Stover brand eventually bought out their rival, Whitman. Today, Whitman and Russell Stover candies are a Valentine’s Day standby.
What about the 45 percent who don’t give a hoot about Valentine’s Day? Well, the holiday doesn’t have to be limited to romantic love: consider honoring your besties on Galentine’s/Palentine’s Day, February 13. And any day in February is a great opportunity to show yourself a little love—with chocolate, of course.