When it comes to February 14, I can do bitter better than anyone. I have probably uttered, “It’s a Hallmark holiday” four times a year for the last 15 years. Though I have been happily in love for the past five Valentine’s Days, my primary interest in the holiday is and has always been the discount candy the day after.
There are many potential origin stories about the holiday of love, but the one I find most interesting takes us to the Roman Empire. Claudius II was really salty about the gradual fall of his empire, and, in an effort to keep his soldiers fierce, outlawed marriage. Valentine of Rome, either a priest or bishop depending on who you ask, performed secret marriages. Living up to his namesake, Claudius the Cruel had him executed. This was not before the priest sent a last letter to his love. It was signed “From your Valentine.” Hence, the first Valentine was created, under penalty of death.
The ides of February have been observed by pagans as a time of fertility for eons but English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first to link romantic love and Valentine’s Day. In Parliament of Fowls he writes that the marriage between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia was to take place “…on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every fowl cometh to choose his mate.” From then on, it was all stuffed teddy bears and mass-produced, heart necklaces for the lovers of the world. Let’s explore why we give certain gifts on this most romantic of days:
Red Roses and Cupid
Being the goddess of love has some advantages in the marketing department. Venus, or Aphrodite from you grecophiles, has a monopoly on Valentine’s Day iconography. From the colors red and pink to pearls and gold, Venus’s symbols have been adapted for the gift-giving public. Her biggest contributions, are red roses and her son, Cupid. Roses, especially red ones, symbolize passion and fertility, and they smell really nice. During early pagan versions of Valentine’s Day, roses would have been one of the premiere gifts to give or receive.
Obviously, you weren’t going to get through a Valentine’s article without some mention of that creepy, naked baby. Cupid was Venus’s son in most versions of the mythology, and is said to have powers of bringing people together. Most of us have described a lovelorn friend as being “struck by Cupid’s arrow” for better or worse. The cherub is used to symbolize passionate, but pure and innocent, love.
Boxes of Chocolate
Richard Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury) developed a new way to extract pure cocoa from beans in the mid-1800s. The process produced more cocoa butter than Cadbury could use for drinking chocolate, and he developed “eating chocolates” from the waste. Being the shrewd businessman he was, he started putting the chocolates in intricately-decorated, heart-shaped boxes. Advertising them as “candy for now, a collectible box for later” Cadbury’s waste chocolate took off the world over. The boxed chocolates were a staple until the sugar rations of WWII slowed production. Fortunately, the Cadbury Company and their heart-shaped boxes were able to survive the Great War.
I don’t think I am blowing any minds by saying champagne (and almost any other type of alcohol) is just good sense on a date – it lowers inhibitions, makes your date look at least two points more attractive, and turns even the most club-footed into excellent dancers. But why champagne on Valentine’s Day? The specificity of labelling for true champagne means it is more exclusive and because of this has never been relegated to table wine status. From the way you drink it (slowly sipping from your fanciest glasses) to the foods it is traditionally paired with (oysters and caviar) champagne is the classiest of the classy drinks. It’s as simple as that. So take your lover outside, pop open a bottle, and steal a line from Benedictine monk Dom Perignon who after tasting the spirit, famously exclaimed, “Come quickly, brothers! I am tasting the stars!”
Picture a wining and dining scene from almost any 90s sitcom. Do you see strawberries, chocolate-covered, with whipped cream, or otherwise? Yeah, I thought so. For some reason champagne and strawberries became the calling card of cheesy romance scenes, but the fruits have always enjoyed a holy reputation. During early Christian history, strawberries were used to symbolize goodness and purity; in some instances it was used to symbolize the Virgin Mary herself. The natural heart shape of the fruit lends itself well to celebrations of love and fertility the world over.
Growing up in a Mexican family in the South, Rachel Valdéz began to love food before she could hold a spoon. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism, Rachel decided to go into the kitchen professionally. Having just finished her culinary arts degree at Kendall College, she is primed to start work at one of Chicago’s food nonprofits to help alleviate the pressures of food access issues in Chicago. In her spare time Rachel enjoys cuddling her puppy, haphazardly doing yoga, and writing about herself in the third person.