2 min read

Happy break-a-tooth-on-a-hard-candy-heart day

A Christian martyr named Valentine was executed around 270 CE by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, despite having healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness. Talk about ingratitude.
Happy break-a-tooth-on-a-hard-candy-heart day
© Dale Keiger

Or, who’s on board for a Lupercalian lottery?

The second-oldest surviving western Christian liturgical book is the Gelasian Sacramentary. (Extra credit for whoever names the first.) Its formal title is Liber sacramentorum Romanae ecclesiae (“Book of Sacraments of the Church of Rome”). The Vatican Library has a copy from the 8th century, and it contains record of a Feast of Saint Valentine on February 14.

The celebration resembled an ancient mid-February Roman festival called Lupercalia. A celebration of spring, Lupercalia apparently included the sacrificing of goats — ancient rites were rough on goats — and the pairing of men and women by lottery, which sounds like good clean fun. In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I forbid Christians from taking part in Lupercalia, maybe because of that lottery business. One line of thinking is that he replaced it with St. Valentine’s Day. Probably not, but it’s a decent story. The day didn’t become anything resembling our present romantic observance until the 14th century, give or take several decades.

Anticipating your next question: There was more than one Christian martyr named Valentine. One was executed around 270 CE by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus despite having healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness, which defines ingratitude. Other scholars believe Valentine’s Day is named for a bishop, St. Valentine of Terni. We may not have to pick one because the two Valentines might have been the same guy, separated not at birth but by the sketchy historical record.

(Bonus divergence: Gothicus would be a great name for a death metal band, don’t you think?)

Formal Valentine love messages had appeared by the 1500s, and by the 1700s printers had identified a market for Valentine cards. Oh, and Italians in Padua hand out charms called Saint Valentine’s Keys which were believed to remedy epilepsy, which has been called “Saint Valentine’s affliction.” In case anyone ever asks.

Now about those hard candies. Technically, they are called “conversation hearts,” because of the little messages printed on each one in san-serif all caps. The first ones, introduced in 1847 by a pharmacist named Oliver Chase, were shaped like discs and must have been bigger because one sample message was, WHY IS A STYLISH GIRL LIKE YOU A THRIFTY HOUSEKEEPER? (Not a rhetorical question. The other side of the candy bore the reply: BECAUSE SHE MAKES A BIG BUSTLE ABOUT A LITTLE WAIST. Oh man, that line kills. Despite the iffy grammar.) Chase went on to found the New England Confectionery Company, familiar to everyone of a certain age as NECCO.

Should you want to make your own, here are the ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, glycerin, gelatin, tragacanth gum, xanthan gum, Arabic gum, citrus acid, artificial and natural flavors, and artificial colors. Throw all that in a bowl and you’ve got a meal, my friends.

This is all a protracted way for Dr Essai and Mr K to wish all of you lovely subscribers Happy Valentine’s Day and thank you so much for reading. And if you’re over 60, please suck on those hearts, don’t bite down on them. Reconstructing a molar has gotten so expensive. BE MINE — SORRY ABOUT THE TOOTH.