Valentine’s Day and Chocolate

 How a violent celebration of fertility led to chocolate hearts!

*First blogged in January 2020. Reposting today for Valentine’s Day 2022*

by Lindsay Tarnoff

Valentine's Day and Chocolate

For many of us, Chocolate and Valentine’s Day are inextricably linked. However, the history of Valentine’s Day goes back far before cacao became chocolate as we know it.

As with most contemporary holidays, Valentine’s Day dates back to Ancient Rome, with the celebration of the Feast of Lupercalia during the dates of February 13 until February 15. The feast, it is reported, was at least in part about fertility. During the feast, Roman men would sacrifice goats and dogs; with the skins of the slain animals, they would whip women who had lined up waiting to be whipped. According to an NPR interview with historian Noel Lenski, it was widely believed that these whippings would increase fertility, and therefore women willingly waited in line for the abuse. 

Feast of Lupercalia

Feast of Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei

The Ancient Feast of Lupercalia

There was more to Lupercalia than just sacrifices and whippings. The feast also included a matchmaking lottery, during which men would pick a woman’s name, and the two would spend the night together. Noel Lenski explained that some of the pairings would last just one night, while other couples endured. No matter how much time they spent together, however, the romance that we now associate with Valentine’s Day was not a part of the feast.

As Christianity spread, the remnants of the Feast of Lupercalia remained as February 14 became a holiday to honor a few saints named Valentine. 

The first connection to that Valentine’s Day romance can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry. It wasn’t human love, however, but rather the mating of birds: “And, Lord, the blisse and joye that they make! For ech of hem gan other in wynges take.” Translated into modern day English, Chaucer was honoring the day when all the birds choose their mates for the year. Andy Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, explains that research suggests there were originally two or three Saint Valentines. The St Valentine that Chaucer referenced was St. Valentine of Genoa, who was honored in May, just as birds were mating. Within just one generation, love and Valentine’s Day were linked, in an inseparable, long-lasting romance brought together by fate – and Chaucer, and his followers. This idea of romance expanded even more as the date of honoring St Valentine transitioned to solely celebrating on February .

The idea of Valentine’s Day as a day of love grew with the legend that the priest St. Valentine was martyred for performing illegal marriages during a time period when Roman Emperor Claudius forbade his soldiers from marrying. The romantic in me wants to believe that. This legend spread, and over centuries, the holiday not only honored St Valentine and celebrated birds mated, but also began to celebrate human love, and soon incorporated various symbols of love. 

Over time, chocolate became a symbol of love. Chocolate had long been consumed as an aphrodisiac. In fact, some accounts of initial European disdain for chocolate originate with connections to Montezuma’s use of chocolate to increase both his sexual appetite and that of his partners. In History of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, James Wadsworth wrote that chocolate “twill make Old women Young and Fresh; Create New Motions of the Flesh, And cause them to long for you know what, If but for the taste of chocolate.” Soon, though, the 19th century brought about a revolution in attitude towards chocolate. Not only did chocolate become acceptable as a drink even for the most pious of good, religious Europeans, but it also soon became more affordable for the masses – just in time for the Victorian Age.

victorian chocolatier

This timing was serendipitous. The Victorian Age was a period in European history during which courtly love reigned and members of society showered each other with love and gifts. Richard Cadbury, owner of one of the oldest chocolate producers in Europe, capitalized on these romantic customs. The company had recently finessed its chocolate making technique to incorporate more cocoa butter in their chocolate. They developed the first eating chocolate, soon resulting in what is believed to be the first red heart box filled with chocolate.

With that, chocolate’s popularity throughout the year grew, and it’s association with Valentine’s Day was cemented. The commercialization of both chocolate and Valentine’s Day has grown exponentially. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2016, it was estimated that Americans spent $19.7 billion around Valentine’s Day. In 2014, about $1.7 billion was spent on 58 pounds of candy. Stores are decorated with red and pink hearts for weeks if not months prior to February 14. 

This Valentine’s Day, the irony of the beauty of chocolate and the celebration of love stand out against the gruesome history of the holiday and the contemporary struggle of those children forced to work on chocolate farms has stood out to me. As you purchase chocolate for your loved ones, make sure you know where the chocolate is grown, so you can ensure that you are supporting positive labor and environmental practices. Laughing Gull is proud to support and advocate for those practices, especially this Valentine’s Day!

Edited to add in 2022: if women’s health, and specifically reproductive justice, is something you are passionate about also, help us support #SupportYourSistahs with this chocolate uterus

mind your own uterus


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