How Did we get to Chocolates and Roses?

Valentine's Day was one of my favorite holidays in grade school. There was a shoe box to find and paint  to look like a mailbox for your valentines then to make cards for your special friends.The lingering question of whether your secret crush would give you a card or candy added to the days excitement.  

The chocolate kisses, chocolate cake, red roses, jewelry and those fun valentine candies with sayings on them added to the noteworthy extravagances.

Little did I know that the roots of this holiday bore little-to-no resemblance to my childhood memories!   History class never mentioned that Valentine's Day actually originated with an arguably gruesome ancient festival where there was no chocolate or exchange of cute, red-and-pink cards. But love it or hate it, those are the types of things we associate with the holiday today. After all, there's a reason roughly 114 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged each year — it's what's become expected.

So how in the world did we get from an ancient Roman festival to a holiday that compels many of us to buy love notes and chocolates? That story, it turns out, is thousands of years old — 

The roots of Valentine's Day are cited to lie in the ancient Roman festival LUPERCALIA that took place annually on February 15 — the day after what is today the observed date of Valentine's Day — and involved some very primitive forms of courtship and matchmaking. The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival – or longer, if the match was right. But it was also ancient Rome that saw the famous execution of a St. Valentine on February 14, around 278 A.D. according to legend he wrote a letter on the night before his execution to his jailer's daughter, whom he had befriended, and miraculously sreturned her eyesight and signed it, "From Your Valentine."

Over two centuries later, Pope Gelasius ordered that Lupercalia be replaced with the February 14 observation of St. Valentine's Day. That set the tone, some believe, for the day's forthcoming tradition of exchanging love messages perhaps in remembrance of St. Valentine's farewell note.

The Romans are also credited with constructing the idea of CUPID — a god of love often depicted with arrows that, as the legend goes, inflict love upon those who were hit by the arrows. The Roman version of Cupid was adapted from EROS the god of passion and fertility in Greek mythology. It seems that no one is quite sure when cupid became associated with Valentine's Day, but the fact that both have origins in ancient Roman culture suggests that there may have been some very early overlap between the two.

Shakespeare (and Chaucer) in Love

When NPR's Arnie Seipel set out to explore the history of Valentine's Day, he found that it became romanticized by William Shakespeare in the late 16th century and Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s.


Dartmouth English professor Peter Travis cites Chaucer's epic poem The Parliament of Fowls, which was one of the first literary references to St. Valentine's Day, or "Seynt Valentynes day," as Chaucer spelled it. One such mention is made Travis explains alongside the line, "Now welcom somer, with thy sonne sonne, That hast this wintres weders over-shake." In other words, when we celebrate love in the coldest depths of winter — in February, for instance — it's so heartwarming that it makes summer feel less far away.


Some literary historians credit Shakespeare for the permeation of love into popular culture with his composition of Sonnet 18 thought to be written between 1593 and 1616

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. ( fun to read this, right?)

It's unclear when or how this particular work became associated with Valentine's Day, but like Chaucer, Shakespeare compares love to the seasons... one of my favorite metaphors.

Midsummer Night's Dream Acrylic on canvas 

Saint Valentine's Day is spoken about in  Hamlet — — when the character Ophelia mentions in a song about a young lady's experience with the holiday, which includes lyrics like, "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day," and, "To be your Valentine."

By the 1700s, it's said that Valentine's Day made its way from Europe to the United States.  It became traditional, for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes  This tradition was more common in England, where the Industrial Revolution began earlier and eventually included the production of fancy expensive Valentine’s cards.

One American woman, Esther Howland, was so intrigued when she received her first English Valentine greeting in 1847, that she became infatuated with the idea of manufacturing them in the U.S. She was an early entrepreneur, and instinctively believed that there could be an American market for these formal, English-style greetings. After procuring materials like high-quality paper and lace from her father, a stationer, she created what many credit as the earliest American Valentine's Day greeting cards.

Charles II of Sweden around the same time begins communicating with flowers, by assigning a different message to each type.  For instance, the peony was given on special occassions as an expression of goodwill, best wishes, and joy, the purple hyacinth, in contrast for an apology.  This tradition labeled the red rose with romance and love setting the stage for this flower to be exchanged during the later, commercialized era of Valentine's Day.

 Peonies on Garfield Ave


In England, where Valentine's Day had by now already been celebrated with the exchange of gifts and cards for many years, the Cadbury chocolate company started making the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.

Conversation candies are developed in the 1870’s when Daniel Chase — brother of New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) founder Oliver Chase — uses vegetable dye to print words on candy.

The Hershey Chocolate Company is founded in 1894, bringing what was previously a European luxury item to the U.S. In 1907 The Hershey Chocolate Company introduces its Hershey Kisses candy product. Interestingly enough, the product was allegedly named KISSES because whenever a piece of chocolate was dropped on the conveyer belt at the Hershey factory, it sounded like a kiss.

That same year Hallmark is established and a couple years later in 1910 there was the creation of the Florists Telegraph Delivery — today known as FTD — which pioneered the remote ordering and delivery of flowers, providing a way to send them to far-away loved ones.

The De Beers diamond company in 1985 launches it’s  A DIAMOND IS FOREVER campaign, sending the message that gifting high-end jewelry can be used as an expression of love and Valentine’s Day is the day !


February is the month that marks the beginning of most birds mating season.

May your Valentine’s Day start with their songs!