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).