Best of times … Worst of times … Valentine’s
Syed Nasir Ershad
Valentine’s Day is a time to celebrate romance and love and kissy-face fealty. But the origins of this festival of candy and cupids are actually dark, bloody — and a bit muddled.Though no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, one good place to start is ancient Rome, where men hit on women by, well, hitting them.From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.The Roman romantics “were drunk,they were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.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.The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. Lenski adds, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”Around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” That was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound alike.
As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and hakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages.Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same since.Today, the holiday is big business: According to market research firm IBIS World, Valentine’s Day sales reached $17.6 billion last year; this year’s sales are expected to total $18.6 billion.
But that commercialization has spoiled the day for many. Helen Fisher, a sociologist at Rutgers University, says we have only ourselves to blame.”This isn’t a command performance,” she says. “If people didn’t want to buy Hallmark cards, they would not be bought, and Hallmark would go out of business.”And so the celebration of Valentine’s Day goes on, in varied ways. Many will break the bank buying jewelry and flowers for their beloveds. Others will celebrate in a SAD (that’s Single Awareness Day) way, dining alone and binging on self-gifted chocolates. A few may even be spending this day the same way the early Romans did. But let’s not go there.The Japanese are passionate about Valentine’s Day — but they celebrate it with a twist. omen are expected to give chocolate to the men in their lives. And a month later, the men reciprocate. But in the meantime, Japan’s sweets shops are whipping up a frenzy for Valentine’s-related goods.Every year, Valentine’s Day sends Japan’s confectionery and gift industry into overdrive — and the entire country descends into a kind of chocolate madness. The Isehan Co., for instance, offers orange and strawberry chocolate lip gloss said to “moisturize by melting onto the lips like raw chocolate.”Also in the chocolate-cosmetics category, a Kyoto-based company has launched limited-edition nail polish that could have come from Willy Wonka. The polish makes nails look like they’ve been dipped in liquid chocolate, and the chocolate-y scent lasts long after the nails dry, according to the manufacturer.Of course, there is the usual cornucopia of edible sweets. The hot item this year is “tablet chocolate” — or, to non-aficionados, “candy bars.” Japanese high-end stores are banking on big sales of chocolate tablets from luxury suppliers like Austria’s Bacchalm, which turns out handmade bars sprinkled with rose and violet petals.