Can’t Buy Me Love

Love is in the air. That’s right, February and Valentine’s Day are back, and with their return, the shelves of every store grow peppered with red and pink heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, bouquets of flowers, and a bevy of greeting cards.

But why is it that each Valentine’s Day brings this onslaught of love paraphernalia? My curiosity got the best of me, so I set out to discover why it is that we celebrate Valentine’s Day with our significant others and why these certain gifts are supposed to represent the breadth and depth of our feelings for one another.

So here’s the lowdown:

The tradition of celebrating romantic love in mid-February started in Ancient Rome. Back then, men and women spent all their time separated from the opposite sex. However, in the middle of February, to honor the fertility goddess, Lupercalia, the unwed women would randomly be paired with the unmarried men. The couples would spend the day celebrating together by eating, drinking wine, and dancing.

When the Christians took over the Roman Empire, they typically turned pagan holidays into Saint’s Days. Because of its early association with romance, the festival of Lupercalia became a day used to commemorate St. Valentine, the third-century Roman saint who is said to be patron of lovers. It is said that he earned this distinction because he continued to marry couples after Roman Emperor Claudius II outlawed the sacrament in order to recruit men to go to war.

But how did we get from a pagan festival and a law-breaking priest to chocolates, flowers, cards, and diamonds? Well, each of these symbols has an interesting story of its own to tell:


The Aztecs considered chocolate to be the food of the divine, and ancient Aztec ruler Montezuma thought it to be an aphrodisiac. This conception has actually been reinforced by modern science which has linked the chemical phenylethylamine in chocolate to excitement, pleasure and attraction.

Christopher Columbus, who brought chocolate along with other treasures to Queen Isabella of Spain, introduced the delicacy to Europe. In 1861, Richard Cadbury created the first heart-shaped box of chocolates and it was during this time, the Victorian era, that the sweet stuff became a token gift for lovers.


The story goes that while St. Valentine was imprisoned for performing illegal marriages, he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. Before he was executed, he sent her a single red rose with a love note. The validity of this story is in question, but regardless of its truth, the power of flowers is indelible. The power of flowers was amplified by King Charles II in the eighteenth century when he introduced the idea that different flowers have different meanings. Now a bouquet really is worth 1,000 words, but the red rose remains the symbol of love and passion, perhaps because it is also said to be favorite flower of Venus, goddess of love.


Lovers have exchanged Valentine’s Day poems and songs since the Middle Ages. But paper valentines were introduced in the sixteenth century and quickly replaced the oral and musical gifts. This tradition reached America when the first Valentine’s Day card was mass-produced in Michigan in the 1880’s. Now, Valentine’s Day is the second most popular card-giving holiday next to Christmas.

Now when you give your gifts to that special someone this Valentine’s Day, you can also share how your chocolates and flowers fit into the history of love this season. And, hopefully, find pleasure in the way the influence of the past has allowed you to find the perfect way to express your feelings this month.