Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate romantic love. Every February florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. About thirty-six million boxes of chocolates will be given as gifts today. Esther Howland, the woman who produced the first commercial American valentines in the 1840s, sold a then mind-boggling $5,000 in cards during her first year of business. The valentine industry in the United States has been booming ever since. Today, over 1 billion valentine cards are sent in this country each year -- second in number only to Christmas cards, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Around 8 billion conversation hearts will be produced this year; that’s enough candy to stretch from Rome, Italy to Valentine, Ariz. and back again 20 times. The peak selling season for conversation hearts last only six weeks, but confectioners produce the candy for nearly eleven months of the year. Early American colonists made homemade candies with love notes scratched on the surface for Valentine’s Day. New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) expanded upon the colonists’ idea and created the conversation heart in the mid-1800s. In 1860, Daniel Chase, brother of NECCO founder Oliver Chase, invented the process to print motto candies. Originally, the candies were “cockles” – small, crisp, scallop shell-shaped candy wrapped in colored paper with printed sayings. The Sweet Hearts, the name used for candies with mottos inscribed directly on them, were invented in 1900. The candy was cut into shapes like horseshoes and baseballs. This allowed for longer sayings to be printed on them such as “How long shall I have to wait? Pray be considerate.” This enabled would-be-lovers to send messages to each other. As time went on, the sayings became shorter and more to the point. The familiar heart shape was also produced. Original sayings include “be mine,” “kiss me” and “my man.” Every year new sayings are added.

Valentine's Day comes, in part, from the ancient Romans' holiday honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage, on the night before the Feast of Lupercalia. Roman girls would put slips of paper with their names on them into a clay jar, and the boys would choose their partner for the festival by taking a slip from the jar. This was one of the few times girls and boys were allowed to socialize, and the dancing and games often evolved into courtship and marriage.

Tradition has it that Valentine's Day as we know it began sometime in the middle of the third century. Claudius II of Rome was waging several wars and needed to recruit more soldiers for his armies. He thought that many men were reluctant to join because they didn't want to leave their wives and families, and so he temporarily banned engagements and marriages. Saint Valentine was working as a priest at the time and he and his partner Saint Marius broke the law and secretly married couples in small, candlelit rooms, whispering the ceremonial rites. Eventually Saint Valentine was caught and sentenced to death. While awaiting his punishment he would talk with the young daughter of the prison guard whose father allowed her to visit occasionally. Saint Valentine was killed on February 14, 269 A.D., but he had left a note for the guard's daughter, signed, "Love from your Valentine." Thus the first valentine was written and the rest is cupid's history.

Valentine info brought to you in part by The Writer's Almanac, National Confectioners Association, How Stuff Works and the Tourism, Road & Economic Development Board of Scarce Grease, AL.


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