The Evolution of Valentine’s Day
Between the middle ages and the industrial era, St. Valentine’s feast day, celebrated on February 14, was one of several feast days that offered a break from the grind of work. The celebration activities were playful, humorous and perhaps even a little irreverent. Unmarried village men and women played fortune-telling games to divine their future mates; one such game involved dropping names into a box and drawing out the name of your “valentine,” or the person fate was disposed to match with you. Songs were sung and small gifts were exchanged.
In northern England, children might “go Valentining,” or parade around from door to door while singing and asking for treats—similar to modern Halloween practices—sans the costumes. Among nobility and the wealthy merchants that were permitted to move among their circles, Valentine’s Day became another excuse for the purchase of prestigious gifts like jewels and silks.
If these sound like strange pastimes for a holiday in commemoration of a saint’s martyrdom, that may be because there isn’t really a documented connection between the holiday and any of the various Saint Valentines. It’s probably the springtime St. Valentine that Chaucer had in mind when he wrote “The Parliament of Fowls,” the first written link between St. Valentine and romantic love. According to Chaucer, birds choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day; it’s possible that this idea was already prevalent in oral culture at the time, but it could easily have been a literary invention that eventually inspired the equally invented stories of St. Valentine’s heroic efforts to perform weddings for Roman soldiers.
By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, St. Valentine’s Day was more closely linked to the increasingly popular idea of romantic love. With the mass production of printed materials on the rise, people of all means could purchase or make and send “valentines”—now meaning a holiday card, rather than a person—to the objects of their affections. These cards often featured elaborate cutwork lace, ribbons and trimmings, or etchings of birds, butterflies and flowers. Valentines were often sent anonymously, permitting greater mystery and playfulness. The classic rhyming poems and riddles were just as well-suited to ridicule as to romance.
As adults, we might indulge in more elaborate or elegant confections for our loved ones. Strawberries dipped in chocolate or velvety enrobed ganaches, perhaps presented in a heart-shaped box. Surely these are classic Valentine’s treats?
Compared to printed materials, which were mass-producible from the sixteenth century on, sugar and chocolate refinement is a relatively new addition to the holiday. International competition for capital from sugar and other tropical crops (coffee, tea, cacao) pushed forward the technology to mass-produce these luxury goods in the eighteenth century; even then, the world didn’t catch up to the idea of making “luxury” available to the masses until the growing nineteenth-century middle class increased the demand for
goods that were purely pleasure.
Candy actually entered into Valentine’s Day traditions by way of the print culture; the sweet valentines that caught on were the candies that incorporated pictures or wordplay. In the mid-1800s, Richard Cadbury, an artist as well as heir to the blooming Cadbury chocolate enterprise, began producing keepsake chocolate boxes with designs that echoed the popular sentimental images of Victorian valentines, namely: kittens, cupids and flowers. It was the fancy packaging of chocolates in a heart-shaped box, more than the contents that brought them into keeping with the Valentine spirit. It was considered just as appropriate to gift chocolates to a child as to a sweetheart, both of whom would have enjoyed the candies and kept the pretty boxes for trinkets.
In the same period, the New England Confectionary Company (Necco) devised a means to stamp clever words onto large sugar-wafer candies shaped as postcards. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that they figured out how to shrink the candies and the messages down to the little Necco Sweethearts we’re familiar with today. Short messages, which range from the classic Valentine “Be Mine” to contemporary sarcasms such as “Yeah, Right,” appropriately capture the playful sentiments that have always characterized the holiday. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that other candy brands got on board, producing special flavors or colors of candy just in time to be distributed among friends, family, classrooms and couples for Valentine’s Day.
Candy can invoke memories of childhood innocence, sweet indulgence or even mischief. Perhaps that’s why sweets, when they became more available and versatile, became so deeply entrenched in present-day Valentine customs. No one really knows how the traditions started, or why they continue to evolve; throughout this convoluted history, the recurring themes seem to be similar to those of the historical carnival holiday. The day had always been celebrated with gift exchanges and activities among friends and family; it was as much about mischief as match-making–as much “razzing” as romance– and above all, a respite of fun and pleasure in the middle of the cold, cold winter.