Valentine’s Day and Chocolate: A Perfect Pairing


Chocolate's sweet history leads to Valentine’s Day

By Selma Roth

 

Valentine was a priest who believed in love. Because of this, he performed marriage ceremonies even when they were forbidden by the Roman Emperor Claudius. This didn’t turn out too well for Valentine, who was, some say, caught in the act and sent to Rome to meet his fate.

Whatever the cause, Valentine angered the emperor and was martyred in 269 A.D. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom. Today, he is still the patron saint of the betrothed.

This story establishes a pretty clear connection with the day we now call Valentine’s Day, but does nothing to explain our fascination with chocolate on this holiday.

Chocolate at Its Roots

Back in the days of the Mayans and Aztecs, chocolate was something of a well kept secret. Cacao trees grew only in the Western Hemisphere close to the equator, and so only those people living in this region benefited from the fruit of the low-growing trees. At the time, chocolate was believed to have magical powers and was served for mystical ceremonies, as well as at formal state occasions.

At these events, cocoa beans were mixed with water for a bitter brew, flavored with some spices but never sweetened. No one knows precisely why people thought chocolate to be an aphrodisiac, but it gained that reputation — which could explain why Montezuma, a powerful Aztec ruler, drank it with some regularity.

Chocolate Conquers the World

Later, when chocolate was introduced to Europe, it was made deliciously palatable with the addition of sugar. At first, the Europeans only drank it, but by the nineteenth century, some creative folks were making chocolate candy.

At the time, chocolate’s powers were believed to be so potent that nuns were forbidden to eat it, and French doctors prescribed it to mend broken hearts.

British chocolatier Richard Cadbury is credited with being the first person to create decorative boxes for chocolates, which he introduced in 1868. He is usually recognized, too, as the man who came up with the idea for heart-shaped boxes, a tradition that has become firmly ingrained in our culture. Today, sweethearts give each other truffles and other chocolates in gloriously romantic heart-shaped containers on Valentine’s Day.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Milton Hershey was mass producing chocolate at his plant in rural Pennsylvania. In 1907, the now famous milk chocolate Hershey’s Kiss was introduced — still a great favorite with chocolate lovers, whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year!

Today there seems to be no end to the sorts of chocolates made with dark, milk or white chocolate. Some have fillings of fruits, caramel or nuts, while others have creamy centers.

A Sweet Business

Chocolate is big business, especially on Valentine’s Day, when some experts estimate we spend close to $1 billion on the sweet stuff. Evidently, the only time of year we spend more on chocolate is Easter.

It has never been proven whether chocolate is an aphrodisiac, but scientists believe there could be a connection. Chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine that some say can cause feelings of warmth and attraction.

So go ahead and give a box of chocolates to someone you care about; it’s a sweet way to say “I love you."

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Selma Roth is a freelance writer based in Oregon.