Valentine’s Day has transitioned from an age-old tradition to becoming a globally celebrated phenomenon that transcends the barriers of language, culture, and religion. On February 14th of every year people come together to celebrate the one(s) that they love through passionate displays of affection, gift-giving, meals, and most importantly: chocolate. Particularly in the United States, chocolate has come to define the central meaning of Valentine’s Day with Americans spending billions on the commodity annually. Through exploring the origins of the holiday, chocolate’s role in its development, and the impact of American consumerism an opportunity is presented to better understand a holiday that so many hold dear.
While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day is still a topic of discussion among scholars, the widely accepted historical accounts of it are noteworthy in understanding the thematic development of the holiday. One origin story dates back to pagan Rome and the two gods within Roman mythology: Lupercus, who protected lambs from wolves, and Juno, who looked over wives. Through a combination of the roles of the two deities, Romans paired men and women together for marriage. After Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it, the church named the holiday after a bishop who was said to act as a matchmaker between young Christians. Similarly, another origin story traced back to Chaucer’s time notes the poet’s belief that on February 14th, “every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” (Dyk). As such, Valentine’s Day emerged as a distinctively European, highly gendered, and heteronormative holiday with consumerist undertones. By the early 1600s, chocolate became a sweeping sensation across Europe as began to come in from the New World. Chocolate houses began to spring up across the continent and served as social gathering places and chocolate recipes became widely popular due to chocolate’s seemingly aphrodisiac qualities. Industrial pioneers such as Richard Cadbury began to make chocolate an even more accessible commodity, developing nicely packaged “eating chocolates” that came to be the standard. Despite its European origins, the power of advertising and a growing consumer culture brought it to the forefront of American society.
The commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the United States turned it from a historical ritual that had been widely forgotten to popular cultural event that anyone could be part of. Advertising companies leveraged media outlets to rave about the excitement of the holiday as a time for love, fun, and gift-giving. The word “valentine” transitioned from only meaning a person to also encompassing the gifts that people gave to each other on the holiday. Soon, the reconceptualization and commodification of Valentine’s Day transformed it into a staple of American life with the likes of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter.
Today, Valentine’s Day continues to be a holiday marked by spending that adds fuel to the economy. In 2020, Americans spent over $27.4 billion on Valentine’s Day, up from $20.7 billion spent in 2019 according to the National Retail Foundation. On average, Americans spent $196.31 individually on Valentine’s gifts, up from last year’s record of $161.96. Chocolate and candy account for a strong proportion of spending on the holiday, having reached a sum of over $1.7 billion in 2016. As shown, people see chocolate and Valentine’s Day as inseparable identities and are willing to pay to ensure that those that they care about are able to indulge in the special treat.
Valentine’s Day continues to be a season of coming together and expressing the love we have for those dearest to us in life, whether it be our partners, friends, or families. As it has progressed through the centuries, so has the influences that have shaped it. Chocolate clings to the heart and soul of the holiday and continues to do so. As long as there is chocolate on earth and people are willing to spend on it, Valentine’s Day will continue to thrive and the popularity of chocolate along with it.
Henderson, Amy. “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-chocolate-and-valentines-day-mated-life-180954228/.
Van Dyk, Natalie. “The Reconceptualization of Valentine’s Day in the United States: Valentine’s Day as a Phenomenon of Popular Culture.” Bridges: An Undergraduate Journal of Contemporary Connections 1.1 (2013): 4.
“Valentine’s Day.” NRF, nrf.com/insights/holiday-and-seasonal-trends/valentines-day.