In a previous life, among the trappings of a tiny shop in Manhattan’s West Village, I stocked glass vases and galvanized steel buckets with all manner of floral delights, and prepared wild-looking bouquets to order for local residents. Each year, just prior to February 14th, we’d break our rule of “no red roses — too cliché” and stock up on precisely that cliché, as a surefire way to capture sales for last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts. We were fortunate to entertain a diverse and eclectic clientele the year ’round, but, in this particular moment, and always up til and past closing time on the 13th, there was a predictable, reliable influx of customers buying flowers and chocolate for their romantic partners. We’d assist and suggest and coach and almost always save the day for folks caught up in the rush of a holiday tradition seemingly thrust upon them.
As we once again approach the most chocolate-y holiday, arguably, of the year, we thought it would be fun to explore the current trends, a few of the clichés, and a bit of the history behind gifting chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the tale of St. Valentine: a priest imprisoned and sentenced to death for his crimes, namely, performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers in defiance of an emperor who thought warriors were better off in battle if they were “unfettered” by romantic associations. As he departed his cell for the last time, the priest left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter (a woman he had helped to heal and subsequently befriended). His card was signed, simply, “Your Valentine.” History is fuzzy as to who exactly inspired this story, but the legend survives, as good legends do, and Valentine has since been associated with the message, the card, the gift, and the love.
Love in defiance of an emperor … is there anything better?
Luckily, most mid-February observances these days don’t involve imprisonment, execution, or imperial decree, and the notes we pass are, perhaps, less urgent. That said, shouldn’t we endeavor always to write to those we care about as though we may never again have the chance?
When I was in grade school, the exchanges were somewhat less poetic: perforated sheets of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cards with hearts and quasi-romantic sentiments, Hershey’s kisses and sickly sweet foil-wrapped chocolate hearts from the other Big Chocolate machines. Shortly thereafter, it was the ubiquitous Whitman’s Sampler clogging the aisles of CVS (my first job). As I began my haphazard journey into dating — is there another way to venture forth? — I graduated to slightly more expensive chocolate and arguably “better” Valentine cards, usually sans Ninja Turtles. In any case, and at least in the very small world that was my corner of suburban Massachusetts, the overarching message seemed to be that Valentine’s Day was a holiday where “men bought women (a fairly predictable box of) chocolate.” As my world grew bigger, I found that this distillation often brought eye-rolls at best and downright scorn at worst. It’s certainly a fairly narrow view toward gift-giving, and relationships, and romance, and the intersection of it all … not to mention the chocolate! From whence comes this narrative?!
I reached out to craft chocolate expert and culture aficionado, Megan Giller, of Chocolate Noise, for her take:
Over the past 80 years, big chocolate companies have worked hard to make chocolate the perfect gift for Valentine’s, in particular creating a tradition where men give women chocolate. I’ve even read marketing materials from the 1940s and 1950s where executives talk specifically about gifting, and focusing on women (and gifts for women) as their target.
From the early 20th century on, Rowntree (a British brand) ran advertisements directed toward men for Black Magic chocolate boxes and Dairy Box chocolates. Here’s one for Dairy Box:
“Spend a lucky shilling
On giving her a treat
A DAIRY BOX of lovely chocs
Will keep your ‘Sweetie’ sweet!”
Note the conflation of women with sweetness, and that it’s intended to convince men to buy chocolate for women.
This is, perhaps, not quite as sinister as pitching cigarettes as cool accessories to hook young smokers through television and film inclusions, but the approach is still problematic, serving to underscore gender stereotypes, and enforcing the notion that men have an obligation to buy for their women, in a somewhat impersonal and possessive way, to earn or maintain their affection. Of course, love is love, and great chocolate should ideally flow in all directions, from all parties, without expectation of any kind of “return on investment.”
We’re quite lucky to have a direct line to a part of the world where Valentine’s gifting takes a bit of a different turn. I reached out to Yuki Yamagata at Dandelion Chocolate Japan for her view of local traditions and Dandelion’s involvement in chocolate gifting practices, posing the following questions:
What is your understanding of traditions around gifting chocolate in Japan at Valentine’s Day?
For teenagers, Valentine’s Day used to be a romantic day where girls express their feelings to boys! When I was a high-schooler, one of my friends received a chocolate gift from an unknown girl who had a crush on him, on the way to his school. How cute is that?
For professionals, it used to be a (possibly, at least for me) a problematic day — where female employees are expected to give chocolate to male employees.
(Yuki is referencing the common tradition of ‘Giri Choco’ or ‘Obligation Chocolate’.)
In exchange for Giri chocolate, female employees are gifted back from male employees for something on the [more recently adopted] White Day on March 14th. It could be a measurement of how popular you are as a professional in the company team. It’s also cute to see chocolate gifting happening in families, too. Little daughters give chocolate to their dads, like Father’s Day.
How have traditions/customs shifted in recent years and where are things headed?
I’m not sure if teenage girls give chocolate to boys nowadays. In professional situations, it has been changing and I rarely hear about chocolate gifting from female employees to male employees. Instead, I hear many ladies buy chocolate for themselves or for their girlfriends to thank them for their friendship. You will see lots of female customers at the Valentine’s gift fair. Gift giving to romantic partners is still happening, too.
How has Dandelion Chocolate Japan been involved with and impacted by Valentine’s Day gifting?
February is one of our busiest months, however our chocolate is not red, heart-shaped chocolate, and not affordable for Giri chocolate. I feel like people who select us for Valentine’s Day gifts are more enjoying chocolate itself than celebrating Valentine’s Day.
In a perfect world, we’re simply targeting people who love craft chocolate, and the only behavior we’d like to encourage is that they give it to anyone and everyone they care about! We are spoiled to stand amongst so many fine and admirable craft chocolate makers these days, and it’s no great evil if, by custom, we give and eat a bit more of the good stuff than usual at certain times of the year. As a means to say “I Love You,” chocolate provides a magical end. From my window on this ever-changing world, the only obligation we should honor is the one to say “You Are Appreciated” when we mean it, while we have the time to do it.