While we are figuring out ways to express our love for important people in our lives, for most of us the history of Valentine’s Day and the story behind the patron saint is something of a mystery. February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, but Valentine’s Day as we know it contains threads of both Christian and ancient Roman traditions.
The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus. The most popular legend believes that Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome during the third century. When the emperor at the time, Claudius II, decided that single men made better soldiers that ones with wives and families, Claudius outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine believed that such a law was not only unjust, but that it also violated the laws of God and the church. He continued to perform marriages in secret so that people would have the opportunity to have families blessed by the church.
Regardless of the tradition regarding the saint, most believe that the Catholic Church may have decided to create a feast in the middle of February in an effort to make a “pagan” holiday more Christian and thus acceptable. The celebration of Lupercalia was a festival held on the ides of February – the 15th of the month – dedicated to Faunus, the Roman God of Agriculture. The day also celebrated the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
During the Middle Ages it was held in France and England that the beginning of the mating season of the birds began on February 14th. The notion that the day should be a day of romance began to develop. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to record Valentine’s Day as a day of romantic bliss in a poem he wrote in 1375. The oldest known valentine, which still exists today, was a poem written in a card in the year 1415.
Since that time, people have been giving gifts to the people they love on this special day. But one trip to Walgreen’s or Kroger’s will give you an indication of what most people will give to their loved ones. Aisle after aisle of chocolates flood the store. The National Confectioners Association (NCA) estimates that 58 million pounds of chocolate candy will be purchased the week before Valentine’s Day. How did the day become so tied with chocolate? Was it a conspiracy started by Stephen Whitman and Russell Stover?
Some people point to the special allure that is found in the essence of chocolate, a romantic experience that melts in your mouth and is undeniably sweet and gratifying. They declare that the look and feel and taste of chocolate is heavenly. Personally, the same case could be made for chips and queso. (Heart shaped tortilla chips, with salsa stained “To My Valentine,” – is that an idea or what?) But next to a romantic night out, chocolate is the second most preferred gift at the upcoming holiday.
The real connection between the two is probably the result of the marketing genius of Richard Cadbury in England. Chocolate was expensive to purchase. Only the very rich and elite class were able to buy this limited resource. Cadbury’s family manufactured chocolate. He figured out a way to make chocolate bars from the cocoa butter that was extracted while making chocolate liquor. The good tasting bars were inexpensive and easy to use.
Cadbury’s next task was to create a way to sell the bars. He created beautiful boxes with pictures of Cupid and roses. The two images were popular symbols of romance in Victorian England. He chose the color red to portray the image of the heart. Not long afterward, it was Cadbury who first invented the heart-shaped box that is still used today. Cadbury’s chocolates became so popular they sold out as fast as he could produce them.
In America the wave of chocolate bliss was created by Milton Hershey and entrepreneurs Russell and Clara Stover. Hershey pioneered the concept of drop-sized pieces of chocolate in 1907. In describing them, he described them as just a “kiss” of chocolate. The term “kisses” stuck and revolutionized the chocolate world.
Russell Stover was a chemist. In 1911 he married Clara Lewis and moved to Canada to manage and maintain a 580-acre farm they had received as a wedding gift. They raised wheat and flax but after just over a year, the venture failed miserably. They moved to Minnesota and he returned to the career of his college education working in the candy industry.
In 1918 the couple moved next to Des Moines and then on to Omaha. Stover and his partner Christian Nelson developed the idea of mass-producing a chocolate-covered ice cream treat called the I-Scream Bar. The idea of the confection treat had been tried and rejected by many because the chocolate easily melted away. Through his expertise in chemistry, Stover has been credited with perfecting the formula that makes the chocolate become a shell that hardens with exposure to the cold. The confection was patented in 1922. Stover renamed the I-Scream Bar the Eskimo Pie.
In 1923 Stover sold his share of the Eskimo Pie company and moved to Denver where he and his wife started a new company, Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies. Clara made boxed chocolates out of their kitchen. By 1925 they were so successful they opened a factory in Denver and another one in Kansas City. They renamed the company Russell Stover Candies in 1940. At his death in 1954, the company was producing 11 million pounds of candy each year and selling its product through 40 Russell Stover shops and in about 2000 department stores. When the Swiss company Lindt bought the company in 2014, they reported sales of $500 million.
From the Catbird Seat, while chocolate and Valentine’s Day walk hand in hand, the real sentiment of the day is our thoughtful expression of love. Romantic or altruistic, make your demonstration of love more than a quick shopping stop at the near-by store.