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A Love Trip From Rome To The World

It's impossible to walk into this 83-year-old chocolatier and not be seduced by its sweet aromas and kind service.

Two or three weeks before Valentine's Day, Li-Lac Chocolates in New York City's Greenwich Village offers heart boxes, heart lollipops, chocolate-filled hearts, roses, cherubs, cupids, angels and a whole heaven of love-inspired chocolate figures for romantic buyers.

Valentine's Day might now have a profit motive, but it once meant respect for the sacred values of love and marriage rather than material gratification.

"I know it's a commercialized holiday," says Joan Steele, who was at the Greenwich Village store on a cold February morning.

She bought little chocolate-filled purses and hearts that she will give to family and friends at work.

"It can make you cynical, but you can always turn things around and use this opportunity to give a little instead of receiving," she says, holding a bag of chocolates she just paid for. "It's the spirit that you give it in."

Legend has is that hundreds of years ago, in 496, the Feast of St. Valentine was created by Pope Gelasius I to combat a frivolous festival in honor of Lupercus, the god of fertility. On Feb. 15, the day of Lupercalia, men allegedly drew the name of a woman in a lottery and kept her as a sexual partner for the rest of the year.

Today, however, the holiday isn't as erotic as Lupercalia was in ancient Rome. According to a survey published by the National Retail Federation (NRF), total spending for this year's Valentine's Day is expected to reach $13.7 billion. Yes, women can provoke their partners by tattooing their bodies with chocolate-flavored designs, but greeting cards, candy, a night-out, flowers, jewelry and gift certificates are the most popular gifts, according to the same NRF survey.

In the late 1960s, Valentine's Day dropped the "St." because the Catholic Church took it off its official calendar saying it is unclear who St. Valentine was. Two entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia describe the saint as a martyr in the second half of the third century; one describes him as a priest in Rome, and another as a bishop of Interamna, modernly called Terni. This Italian city hosts a yearly festival with theater, music and art events in honor of St. Valentine.

To avoid these inconsistent stories, the church decided to dedicate Feb. 14 to the Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who preached the gospel in the region that is now Turkey. St. Valentine himself is nothing but a religious afterthought.

"Love is not a box of chocolates," says romance writer Kathleen O'Reilly, who has published 11 novels and, as she put it, is also a wife. "It's listening to the person you love and realizing who they are and what means the most to them."

When birds couple …

In the Middle Ages, people in England and France were probably thinking about ways to please their loved ones when they created our modern Valentine's tradition. At that time, it was generally accepted that birds began to pair in the middle of the second month of the year — on Feb. 14. This popular belief associated St. Valentine's Day with fertility and fidelity (for many birds mate for life).

At the same time, a popular tale about St. Valentine was fashioned. The story goes that while imprisoned for being a Christian, he fell in love with the jailer's daughter and gave her a letter signed "From Your Valentine" on the evening before his death. If true, the correspondence would qualify as the first valentine card in history.

British settlers may have brought the custom to the United States in the 19th century. By the 1860s, Worcester, Mass., became the center of the newly born American valentine industry, with pioneers such as Esther Howland, Jotham Taft and George C. Whitney leading the production of greeting cards in the country.

The Worcester Historical Museum preserves the city's valentine-making traditions by maintaining original valentines, and this year the museum's 28th annual "Be Ours" contest will display over 1,000 cards recently made by local students. The exhibit runs from Feb. 9 through Feb. 23.

Part of the history behind Valentine's Day is unconsciously continued by about 60 percent of consumers polled in the NRF survey, who say they will purchase at least one card for the holiday.

"When you write a card for Valentine's Day, it needs to be personal," O'Reilly says. "People want to shorthand it with 'I love you forever' and it starts to sound too cliché. I ask, what do they do that make you smile? Something like 'Thank you for waking up next to me every day.' "

But if you are not the card-giving type, or you just feel that flowers and a box of chocolates have become too routine, O'Reilly has some non-conventional ideas.

"A gift could be an unexpected luxury," she says, "or a romantic dinner, or even time — one of the biggest luxuries of all. Cleaning the house, hiring a babysitter to take the kids away, arranging for the laundry to be done are all presents that would be appreciated."

… and fly away

What once started in Rome, spread over Europe and became huge in the United States, today reaches other countries as an authentic American custom. To measure Valentine's Day's current range, interviewed a few foreigners who are living in New York and asked: "What do you do for Valentine's Day back home?"

  • Preeti Mankar — Bombay, India
    "We follow it on Feb. 14, but it's, like, a very western concept and many fundamentalist Hindu groups are against the concept altogether."
  • Anna Boluda — Barcelona, Spain
    "Spain has copied Valentine's from American movies, but in Catalonia (the region of Spain where Barcelona is found) we celebrate St. George on April 23, which is also the international book day. There are book street markets all over the city and it's a wonderful day. Traditionally, girls buy a book for the boys, and boys buy a rose for the girls."
  • Ruohong Zhao — Xanghai, China
    "We didn't have Valentine's Day til several years ago. Now it became a way of promoting chocolate and roses. Roses are $10 each on that day. Anyway, it's a very new fashion for the Chinese, and it definitely created a lot of problems for men. There are a lot of them who have mistresses."
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    By Cecilia Lima
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