Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and you’ve failed to come up with a creative gift. Your fallback? A box of chocolates.
For decades this popular candy has been a favorite companion on February 14. But while the chocolate industry currently makes a whole lot of money off of this well-loved (or highly reviled) holiday — a whopping 58 million pounds of the sweet stuff is bought the week of V-day — it hasn’t always been the go-to gift.
All Hail St. Valentine!
Before you get the 411 on Valentine’s long-standing love affair with chocolate, it’s important to know the origin of this February holiday. No — it wasn’t created by Hallmark (although the greeting card industry does love it), but dubbed in honor of Saint Valentine.
There are several myths behind the woman: One suggests she was a priestess put to death after defying Empress Claudius II by marrying lovers in secret despite Claudius outlawing marriage for single women; another poses she was killed for helping Christians escape Roman prisons.
Some believe that February 14 was chosen in honor of her death (which probably occurred somewhere between 200-300 A.D.). Others think the date was picked in order to “Christianize” the pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia. A third group posits that the 14 was chosen because mid-February is when bird mating season begins. Regardless, some time in the late 400s the Pope officially declared the day St. Valentines.
Chocolate is For Lovers
Well before the Christians were trying to nail down their holiday schedule, the Mayans and Aztecs discovered chocolate. Yes folks, it was almost two thousand years ago when the cocoa bean became a prized grocery item in Latin America.
According to Gourmet, it was Queen Montezuma’s belief that the sweet stuff was an aphrodisiac (she sipped it before canoodling with her harem) that not only made it popular, but gave it an association with romance.
Commoners used the cocoa bean as money — and thus the idea of “gifting” chocolate was born. But chocolate’s popularity really took hold in the 1700s when Christopher Columbus brought it (and its legend) back to Europe. The elite were ravenous for its delicious taste and scandalous mythical qualities.
The brou-ha-ha died down in the early 1800s when the Cadbury Sisters began packaging and selling the candy to mainstream consumers. And then in 1861, they sealed its fate as the go-to gift for lovers, by putting out the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.
Goat Hides and Greeting Cards
Prior to exchanging chocolates, teddy bears and even bouquets of flowers, the most romantic day of the year was honored by sacrificing a goat and then slapping men with its hide to make them fertile.
Yes, Lupercalia, Valentine’s predecessor was less about warm fuzzies and more about promoting procreation.
The holiday’s practical tone gained a little more whimsy in the Middle Ages when people began exchanging flowers and love notes. Card-giving — quite possibly the most popular Valentine’s gesture — is credited to Charles, Duke of Orleans. In 1415, the imprisoned Duke wrote a love letter to her husband. The practice picked up in the 16th century, although manufactured greetings didn’t appear until the 18th century.
While these simple gestures are still popular today, modern Valentine’s gifts range from romantic homemade meals to diamond jewelry.
And in a pinch, a box of chocolates.
All right, tell us in the comments: What’s your favorite chocolate gift to give–or to receive?
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