BY CARMEN ANDERSON
We are all familiar with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates bearing subtle messages of love, the eternally gorgeous single red rose (or better still, a dozen long-stemmed red roses) or a basket of sweet pastries with which to extoll a lover’s virtues, declare a secret passion or tempt an uncertain sweetheart.
Traditionally, at least in Western culture, couples in romantic relationships do something special on Valentine’s Day, from sending each other greeting cards, exchanging gifts, to perhaps sharing a romantic candlelit dinner or even going away on a secluded, intimate holiday for two. “Sweets for the sweet,” said Shakespeare, as familiar then as we are now to the traditions of giving sweet treats to our sweetest of lovers. Never one to turn my nose up at a hint of chocolate or fresh flowers, I wanted to learn a little more about where these gifting traditions originate.
Chocolate is probably the go-to gift, not only at Valentine’s, but for other special occasions. We seem to have a constant love affair with chocolate; we eat it when we feel down to make us feel better, we nibble on a bit of it for an energy lift during a busy day and we offer it at Valentine’s as a symbolic way to tempt a special person into falling in love with us. Chocolate was introduced to Europe during the 16th century from South America, where it was revered as a gift of the Gods by the Aztecs. They thought it a source of wisdom, energy, an aphrodisiac and added it to many drinks and foods.
They thought it a source of wisdom, energy, and an aphrodisiac.
Learning this, I could not resist speaking to Bianca Peralta-Tsagkatakis (the Binky of ‘Binky’s Kitchen in Turnbull’s Lane) to mine her knowledge on all things chocolatey, sweet and delicious. She said, “One of the active ingredients in chocolate – theobromine – acts as a mild stimulant and has a mood enhancing effect, which is probably why it’s a go-to for occasions such as this.” For those who really do want a chemistry-based justification for gifting chocolate, it also contains phenylethylamine which releases the same chemicals into the body as the emotional response to being in love: dopamine and serotonin.
Flowers and Valentine’s day gestures are inextricably linked. Roses are usually the flower of choice as a gift. Roses represent love in all its forms and were supposed to be the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman Goddess of love. By the 17th Century it had become customary for people to give flowers to demonstrate love, in particular love that knows no bounds. There are other flowers which carry secret meanings and these, particularly in Victorian times when people were obliged to be extremely discreet about their feelings, can also be used to communicate love and care. For example, the daisy signifies purity, simplicity and innocence, something that one person might want to convey to a possible partner, while jasmine was symbolic of unconditional and eternal love. Colourful, delicate, with a fleeting beauty, flowers will almost inevitably brighten up anyone’s day and make a perennially welcome gift.
Of course, sometimes, it’s just easier to use the written word to get across exactly what you want to say to that special someone. The problem is, some of us can become quite tongue tied on those special occasions; that’s where greeting cards come in. People have sent cards with messages to each other for centuries. The tradition seems to date back to 1415, when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, wrote a poem for his wife on Valentine’s Day while imprisoned in the Tower of London. By the 16th century, this gesture of giving cards with loving messages had become so common on Valentine’s Day that several religious leaders preached against them. By the early 19th century, it was the most popular way to show your love on that special day, and judging by the roaring trade at card shops in early February, this habit has not abated. And who has not felt that sense of disappointment at finding their mailbox empty on the 14th of February, or the elation of receiving an unsigned message of affection in a card from an anonymous admirer?
I went back to Binky for some fresh ideas: “I think Chocolate appeals all year round, especially in Gibraltar where we seem to have an extraordinary sweet tooth (myself included). Valentine’s day is a good occasion to spoil a loved one, and what better than with chocolate? I’ll be making Belgian chocolate covered strawberries and a selection of handmade chocolates and praline truffles.”
There are always the grand gestures: a poem penned to mourn unrequited love, a song to win a heart, the slipping of an expensive diamond onto a finger or the abdication of a throne for love as Edward VIII did for Mrs Simpson… Yet, it is usually those small, special gifts for that significant person in our lives, that are the most memorable, or those special little touches: “If you only have one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” – Maya Angelou.