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For Valentine’s Day, the best gifts are from the heart (shaped box, that is)

By Marilyn A. Busch

In the last few days leading up to Feb. 14, millions of Americans – men especially – will find themselves standing in a candy aisle overflowing with row after row of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates in every size imaginable. These lace covered, ribbon wrapped, red and pink boxes have long stood as the gold standard, the “Cadillac” of gifts that one can gift to symbolize deep and romantic love.

At least that is how it seemed in my household, growing up the eldest of two children in Cumberland in the 1970s. My father would always come home from work and proudly present my Mom with the Valentine’s “trifecta” of gifts – a Hallmark card addressed to “My Sweetie”, a bouquet of flowers and a substantial box of assorted chocolates.

Growing up in Woonsocket, my college friend Kathleen Bebeau fondly paints her father as a romantic as well saying growing up he never forgot Valentine’s Day. “I secretly think it was his favorite holiday…every year…a big red heart shaped box of chocolates.”

And every year, without fail, I too would see my parents revisiting their younger days of courtship with a blush and some clandestine kisses. The thing I noted even at a young age was that while my father showered her with gifts, my mother only needed to simply purchase a greeting card. Aha! The cultural lesson was not lost on me – obviously a man should shower his love with decadent gifts and just like I had seen in the movies, the object of his affection should receive such offerings while draped in a satin peignoir a la a seductive Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight.

Chocolate has a long history as a supposed aphrodisiac and precursor to romantic love. Many trace back the marriage of chocolate and seduction all the way back to the 15th century. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma firmly believed that the consumption of chocolate was the secret to keeping his harem satisfied.

So, how did we get to the modern traditions of candy, flowers and written prose? While the mid-winter holiday of Valentine’s Day is supposedly named for two different Roman saints, both of these “Valentines” are loosely connected to the romantic holiday celebrated today.

The modern trappings of the holiday can be traced back to the 1800s when intricately detailed Victorian greeting cards became all the rage and Richard Cadbury, heir to the British Cadbury chocolate name took this type of images and started painting them on candy boxes. Cadbury is widely credited for creating the first known heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day in the late 1800s. The chocolatier rightly touted the gift’s long-lasting value – once the confections had been eaten, the elaborate boxes could be used to store mementos of Valentine’s Day past.

Local actor and director Bob Colonna was surprised by his good fortune of finding one such beloved heart-shaped memento in a local second hand store. “It proved to be filled with letters from a World War II GI to his wife at home. Sweet. I wish I still had it today…”

While the years have shown me that my understanding of what was expected of gift-givers on Valentine’s Day was a bit over-inflated, the trend of showing one’s love with candy and flowers shows no sign of slowing down today. American men still spend nearly twice as much as women when it comes to Valentine’s Day, resulting in billions of dollars in sales nationwide. For US boxed chocolate leader Russell Stover, the days leading up to February 14 are hands down the busiest chocolate-buying days of the year, earning them an eye-opening $175 million in boxed chocolate sales.

An informal poll of my circle of female friends lends credo to assumption that indeed, most women are fans of indulging in an occasional chocolate treat – or two. Providence resident Marg Capelli teases that the actual box “could be shaped like a skull and crossbones…if it’s full of chocolate, it’s all good!” and middle school teacher Shannon McLoud admits that her favorites must “come with a map to tell you what flavors are in the box!” Retired prosecutor Sandra Crowe echoes my own sentiments saying, “I cannot remember a Valentine’s Day when I didn’t want one of these,” adding jokingly, “or one when I thought I was thin enough to eat one.”

In the local area there are myriad choices for where one can purchase heart-themed confections, with everything from inexpensive to luxury brands being carried at local retailers, even the last minute shopper has great options to choose from. Phil Tracey spokesman for Stop & Shop confirms that in their stores boxed chocolates are still very popular on Valentine’s Day. “One thing you can’t deny,” Tracey says, “people love chocolate!”

Rhode Island’s largest chocolate manufacturer is Sweenor’s Chocolates, a business started 60 years ago by Walter Sweenor in his basement kitchen. Now with two retail locations (the original Garden City has been in business since 1955 and a newer location in Wakefield) and also doing a brisk online business at sweenorschocolates.com. Today the business is owned and run by third and fourth generations of Sweenor’s, carrying on the family’s same traditions.

And for those of you who are not the lucky recipient of such a gift for the holiday, Anita Carnevale of Cranston has some sage advice that challenges tradition. For the holiday she buys herself a metal heart tin of her favorite truffles “just to remind myself that I don’t need a guy to buy chocolates for me,” she adds with a smile, “I love myself and that’s the most important thing.”