The Surprising Origin Story Of Chocolate On Valentine's Day

While some may think Valentine's Day is for lovers, the real truth of the matter is, it's a holiday that's just perfect for chocolate lovers. Whether or not you're in a relationship, you can always be blissfully in love with this glorious confection.

How did chocolate come to be associated with what started out as the feast day for a once-obscure Roman saint? Saint's days, on their own, are no rarity — according to Vatican News, the liturgical calendar shows that February 14 is a day dedicated to the memory of no fewer than five saints: Sts. Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, bishop patrons of Europe, St. Zenon, martyr on the Appia, and St. Valentin, martyr on the Via Flaminia. Every other day also has its full complement of holy men and women, yet we don't break out the candy boxes 365 times a year. 

In order to sort out the link between Valentine's Day and chocolate, Mashed went straight to a chocolate expert: Michael Laiskonis, chef and creator of the Chocolate Lab at the Institute of Culinary Education. Laiskonis took our query quite seriously and did some serious sleuthing to come up with his answer.

Chocolate candies themselves are a fairly recent creation

Before chocolate candies could become a popular love gift, they had to come into being, and chocolate candy is fairly recent as far as foodstuffs go. Chocolate itself is a product of the new world, so western Europe didn't really become familiar with it until post-Columbian days. While the first chocolate bars date back to the mid-19th century, Laiskonis notes that up through the turn of the century, chocolate for the most part was primarily considered to be a beverage with a secondary use as a flavoring, much as coffee and tea are to this day. (Could coffee candy bars be a thing in the future? Laiskonis didn't speak to this, but it's an intriguing prospect.)

"The earliest chocolate 'bonbons'," Laiskonis told Mashed, "were typically very sweet sugary centers flavored with fruits, flowers and spirits [and] dipped in chocolate coatings." Ganache-style or cream centers, something he calls "chocolate candy at its most luxurious," weren't really a thing before 20th-century refrigeration techniques improved. The birth of such candies just so happened to coincide with a boom in media and advertising, something that Laiskonis theorizes "helped sell the fetishization of chocolate in general — which arguably also plays a role in the modern bond between chocolate and romance."

Early Valentine's Days didn't include chocolates

While the earliest Valentine card known to history dates back to the 15th century, it was penned by a nobleman (via Grunge). It seems doubtful that it was common practice for the average Joe Serf to take time off from his daily serfing duties every February 14 in order to write love poems to his wife. Even if he did, his unlikely efforts would likely be greeted with, "Get your stinky self out of here! We've already got 15 kids, and the weather report is calling for plagues and pestilence again." By the mid-19th century, Valentines of the paper kind seemed to be popular amongst those who were able to afford the fancy creations being sold at stationers and department stores, but even then, it was just paper that was changing hands.

Legend has it that Cadbury was the first chocolate manufacturer to present its product in a heart-shaped box back in the 1860s. Laiskonis says, though, that in the U.S. one of the earliest mentions of candy in conjunction with Valentine's Day appears in what he calls a "brief and cynical blurb" from the 1873 Brooklyn Union: "The vulgar valentine is flaunting its polychromatic hideousness in dirty little candy stores." By the 1890s, he told us, ads for Valentine's candy complete with heart-shaped boxes were becoming more commonplace, and before World War I, Valentine's chocolate was firmly entrenched in our culture.

This Valentine's Day tradition might be linked to chocolate's supposed aphrodisiac qualities

Besides the association of chocolate with luxury, thus making it a desirable gift on this account alone, Laiskonis says that the whole chocolate/Valentine's Day connection may have something to do with its supposed aphrodisiac properties. While he doubts that there has been any solid evidence to support this idea, he does say, "the lore is deeply embedded in courtship" and reveals that some historians suggest that the idea of chocolate as a love potion may date back to pre-conquest Mesoamerica.

But what about all of the claims of chocolate as a mood booster? Laiskonis is a bit skeptical of these as well, telling us that the scientific studies he's seen tend to indicate that chocolate's effects on our brain are pretty ephemeral. Still, there's no doubt that the act of eating chocolate does bring joy and pleasure to most of us, so giving somebody a big box of chocolate is tantamount to saying "I want you to be happy." Even if the person you're gifting with chocolate is yourself, there's no higher expression of love.