Who was St. Valentine? Although we don’t know for sure, we do know he wasn’t a patron of romantic love. St. Valentine’s Day was originally an occasion honoring one of several Christian martyrs. It took centuries before the day was linked to love — and even longer before anyone dreamed up a heart-shaped box of chocolate.
Historians Don’t Know for Sure Who St. Valentine Was
The history we have comes from the Bollandists, an order of Belgian Jesuit monks who began publishing an encyclopedic text called the Acta Sanctorum in 1643. They searched archives to document the lives of past saints, organizing their research as part of a calendar that associates each day with a saint. For February 14, they listed several martyrs called “Valentini.”
The Bollandists uncovered tales of two Christians who were decapitated on February 14 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in the third century. One legend concerns a Roman priest named Valentinus, and the other a bishop of Terni in the province of Umbria, Italy. As the Bollandists note, it’s likely the two tales actually refer to the same person. There’s also a legend that a St. Valentine performed illegal marriages for the emperor’s soldiers, but no real evidence to back it up.
Churches and Monasteries Say They Have Bits of St. Valentine’s Body
An entire skull purported to be St. Valentine’s is still on display in one church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. Churches in Madrid, Dublin, Prague, Malta, Birmingham, Glasgow, and the Greek isle of Lesbos have also claimed to have a bit of the saint’s skull, or other relics (including his heart) that once belonged to his body.
Relics of martyrs allow Christians to experience a sense that these great souls are still in their community, according to Lisa Bitel, a historian of medieval Europe and religious studies at the University of Southern California. But these bones did not (and don’t) have a special significance for lovers.
Rome Had a Raucous Fertility Festival in Mid-February
The pagan festival of Lupercalia began as a rural ritual of sacrificing goats and dogs. It turned into an urban carnival in Rome, with young men running through the streets whipping onlookers with strips of new goat leather. Romans believed this whipping brought luck to pregnant women.
Around 496 CE, a new pope abolished the festival, which had lasted despite a long series of laws over the previous 150 years banning pagan religious rites. He also declared February 14 to be a celebration of St. Valentine. However, Bitel argues that “there is no evidence that the pope purposely replaced Lupercalia with the more sedate cult of the martyred St. Valentine.”
The Link to Love Came in Literature
So how did Valentine’s Day become associated with romance? You can thank (or blame) famed English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose 14th-century poem “Parliament of Fowls” describes a group of birds gathering on “seynt valentynes day” to select their mates.
Within a few decades, fashionable people had begun sending love notes and, soon, original poems, to their sweethearts on the saint’s day. By 1415, a French duke imprisoned in the Tower of London called his wife his sweet Valentine. Nearly 200 years after that, Shakespeare had Ophelia sing a song based on the folkloric idea that the first girl a man saw on Valentine’s Day would be his true love. By the sentimental Victorian era, Valentine’s Day had become a time to shower each other with cards and gifts, decorated with hearts, rosebuds, and baby Cupids symbolizing romance.
Cupid Was Originally A Hunk
The chubby winged child we often see today first appeared in art and poetry as a handsome youth — the Greek god of love, Eros. Sometimes considered the son of the god of war, Eros caused lots of trouble.
The Romans were the ones who reimagined him as Cupid, the son of Venus (goddess of love and beauty; known in ancient Greece as Aphrodite). The enchanted gold-tipped arrows of his bow, bringing love and lust, were said to pierce both humans and gods alike. Picturing him as a child was a way of “limiting the power that love was thought to have over us,” says Catherine Connors, a classics professor at the University of Washington.
Chocolate hadn’t yet entered the picture, though.
Valentine’s Chocolates Arrived in the 19th Century
Chocolate did have an early link to marriage. The ancient Maya, who first brewed cacao beans, used their unsweetened drink in marriage ceremonies. Sweet chocolates for Valentine’s Day began just as you’d guess — as a way to sell chocolate.
Candymaker Richard Cadbury saw a marketing opportunity in the mid-19th century. His company had developed a manufacturing process that made drinking chocolate tastier. It produced leftover cocoa butter, which he used for bonbons, then called “eating chocolate.” Cadbury himself designed gorgeous boxes to put them in. Later, he put the symbolic Cupids and roses on a heart-shaped box, and a tradition was born.
In the United States, Russell Stover and Whitman’s brought Valentine’s chocolates within reach for millions. Russell Stover bought out Whitman’s, and they now sell the “Secret Lace Heart,” chocolates that come in a heart-shaped box covered with red satin and black lace reminiscent of lingerie.
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