Every year on February 14, millions of men give heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates to the women they hope to woo. Thousands of those boxes come from Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut. How did this ritual start?
For eight hundred years prior to the establishment of Valentine’s Day, the Romans practiced a mid-February celebration honoring the pagan god Lupercus and commemorating young men’s rite of passage to manhood.
In a random draw, each young man reached into a box and pulled out the name of a teenage girl. That girl would be his companion for the remainder of the year.
Pope Gelasius sought to banish this pagan festival. He ordered a change in the lottery. The box, he said, would contain the names of saints, and both young men and young women would draw from it. Their task was to emulate their chosen saint for the remainder of the year.
Great idea, Gelasius! The kids will love that!
Hardly. But the church persisted, denouncing the pagan god Lupercus and decreeing that the festival’s patron saint would be one who represented compassionate love, not erotic love. Gelasius announced the new festival hero: Saint Valentine.
To learn about St. Valentine, and understand why Gelasius chose him to be patron of the Roman’s February holiday, you must go further back in time.
Long before Pope Gelasius, the Emperor Claudius II was dragging the Roman Empire into many bloody wars to which most Romans objected. “Claudius the Cruel,” as he was known, had difficulty convincing young men to join his army.
Claudius wrongly assumed that Roman men resisted fighting simply because they didn’t want to leave their wives. In a stroke of genius, he annulled all engagements and banned marriage.
Smart move, Claudius! The men will love that!
Hardly. But Claudius persisted. Meanwhile, a priest named Valentine secretly continued encouraging weddings and presiding over them. Claudius found out and was furious. He imprisoned Valentine.
While in prison, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer. According to legend, Valentine’s love for her was so great that it filled her with intense joy and healed her blindness.
On February 14, 270 AD, Claudius had Valentine beheaded. Before walking to the gallows, Valentine wrote a farewell message to his love. He signed it, “From your Valentine.”
Now, fast-forward to Gelasius, the wise pope who outlawed the pagan rite of passage to manhood.
“Act like a saint!” Gelasius demanded.
But despite his exhortations, young Roman men continued recognizing the mid-February holiday as a time to pursue female affection.
The story of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom had an effect precisely opposite of what Gelasius intended. It served only to embolden young men.
Though the public lottery was prohibited, young men kept giving handwritten messages of affection to the maidens they fancied.
It was customary for each message to include Valentine’s name. Gradually, these messages were called “Valentines.”
Eventually, some love-struck man, determined to win a woman’s heart, thought to give not just a card, but a box of chocolates. It obviously made quite an impression.
Perhaps other men were encouraged by his success. Perhaps other women’s expectations had been raised. Probably both. Most suitors followed suit. And the ritual continues to this day.