“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around”. It’s that time of year again, where everyone goes all out to express their love on what is universally known as Valentine’s Day, but what does it mean to everyone and how does this festivity vary from country to country? What weird and wonderful stories and traditions surround this love-filled celebration? Worldwide this holiday brings a multitude of meanings, so in true story telling fashion … are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time in a world of love, there emerged a treasure trove of Valentine customs that set lovers’ worlds on fire. Travelling across the globe through a colourful array of cultures, we first arrive in Europe where a variety of countries reveal a whole cast of star-studded quirky traditions. As we traverse a fascinating land, our first port of call brings us to the east, where we are delighted with the enchanting Valentine’s Day customs of Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Estonia.
It’s 14th February and spring is in the air, so let’s get back to working the fields on this glorious Saint Valentines (Zdravko) and leave the declaration of love to the birds. Slovenian tradition does not follow the usual Valentine’s celebrations as we know them, as Saint Valentines is their patron saint of spring and so instead, this day represents the first day of the growing season. It also marks the beginning of the mating season for birds (although the whisperings of folklore talk of the birds of the fields proposing to their loved ones and marrying them on this day). Their Valentine’s is celebrated on Saint Gregory’s Day, March 12th although it appears as if, this one day, is not enough for Slovenian couples to express their love for one another. An additional two days Saint Vincent’s Day on February 22nd and Saint Anthony’s Day (patron saint of love) on 13th June result in a trio of love celebrations!
What better way to celebrate Valentine’s than with a glass or two of wine. Since February 14th is known as Winemaker’s Day (St Trifon Zarezan) in Bulgaria, the celebration brings couples together to enjoy the country’s national wine delights.
Having become more popular in recent years, it is actually May 1st that traditionally brings loved ones together in the Czech Republic to make merry and declare their undying love. Pilgrimages to Petrin Park where the statue of poet Karel Hynek Mácha resides are popular, as is kissing under the spring cherry blossom, thought to bring good luck for the coming year.
Echoes of a Slovenian Valentine bring forth the time-honoured Dragobete ‘The day the birds are betrothed’ in Romania’s version of Valentine’s Day, held on 24th February. This celebration of both spring and Valentine’s sees girls and boys gather in the forest to pick flowers and freshen their faces with snow to bring health and happiness.
In Estonia and Finland, they celebrate an alternative to Valentine’s Day known as Sõbrapäev in Estonian and Ystävän Päivä in Finnish, which is literally translated as ‘Friend’s Day’. This means everyone’s a winner on 14th February, where love is honoured in all shapes and forms. So instead of the day highlighting those who are still single, Valentine’s is dedicated to friendship, a day where gifts and cards saying ‘Happy Friends Day’ are exchanged between family and friends to highlight love in a non-romantic gesture. However, it still remains a popular day to get engaged or get married, plus single people can still get into the groove by taking a ‘love bus’ on the day, in an effort to meet a potential partner.
Our Valentine story continues from east to north, where this trip takes a tender turn towards the Nordic countries of Finland (see above), Denmark and Norway, venturing on to the passionate Mediterranean shores of France, Italy and Spain and finally crossing the channel to take a short rest in England and Wales.
Fairly new to the Valentine’s game (early 1990s), the Danish and Norwegian have embraced this holiday with what appears a less commercial and more thoughtful tradition, by presenting their loved ones with pressed white flowers (usually snowdrops). At the same time, a rather unusual custom shows off men’s wit in the form of a funny rhyme or poem written on intricately cut paper, otherwise known as ‘gaekkebrev’ (joking letter). This anonymous letter only hints at who the sender might be in the form of a signature of dots representing the amount of letters in the sender’s name. The prize for guessing the author of the ‘gaekkebrev’ is awarded an Easter egg come Easter. Incorrect guesses mean the women owe their poet an egg.
With a reputation for being the most romantic place in the world, Valentine’s Day has held court for centuries. History reveals that the origins of the world renowned ‘Valentine Card’ came about from the time Charles, Duke of Orleans sent love letters to his wife whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415 and so the tradition of Valentine Cards was born. A rather more wild legend known as’ loterie d’amour’ (drawing for love) brought together a gathering of men and women in houses facing each other, where they’d take turns to call out to one another and pair off. Rejected women who might be swapped if the men weren’t happy with their match would get together afterwards and gather by a ceremonial bonfire, hurling insults at the opposite sex and throwing pictures of these men who’d wronged them into the fire. The French government later banned this reverie, as the gatherings got a little too out of control.
Today, a sweeter custom is still practiced in the pertinently named French village of St Valentin, which transforms itself into a love village during the course of this celebration, adorning its houses with roses and bedecking its trees with love notes. Don’t be surprised at the abundance of marriage proposals, as well as the various trees planted for one’s lover.
Shall we attend a music performance or a poetry reading in the open air before we take a Valentine’s stroll? Italian couples used to rejoice in love in this manner on Valentine’s Day originally known as ‘Spring Festival’. Folklore also told of young, unmarried girls waking up before dawn in an attempt to spot their future husbands. They believed that the first man they saw on that day would be their betrothed within the year. Today however, tradition involves romantic dinners and gifts exchanged between lovers, the most popular valentine chocolate being Baci Perugina (small, chocolate-covered hazelnuts wrapped with a romantic quote in four languages).
Noted for their love of fiestas, the Spanish express their love for one another at colourful festivals and parades in Valencia on 9th October, Day of Saint Dionysius (patron saint of love), whereby it is customary for men to offer their other halves a Mocadora (marzipan fig) as a sign of their love. On the other hand in Barcelona, April 23rd draws couples together to revel in their love on ‘La Diada de Sant Jordi’ (Saint George’s Day), Catalonia’s national day. It is also known as ‘El Dia de la Rosa’ (The Day of the Rose) or ‘El Dia del Llibre’ (The Day of the Book). As the Catalan saying goes “A rose for love and a book forever” the usual gifts being roses and books.
Before chocolates, teddy bears, flowers, jewellery and the likes became gifts, Valentine’s Day in England saw women customarily place five bay leaves on their pillows positioned in the four corners, with one in the middle. This was carried out in the hope that it would bring them dreams of their future husbands. Another variation of this folklore was to sprinkle bay leaves with rosewater and lay them on the pillow, whilst saying “Good Valentine, be kind to me, in my dreams let me my true love see’.
Famed for their passion, the Welsh celebrate St. Dwynwen’s Day (the patron saint of lovers) on January 25th an equivalent to Valentine’s. The customary romantic gift dating back to 16th century is the offering of a wooden love spoon carved with patterns and symbols each with different meanings. E.g. horseshoes = good luck, wheels = support, beads = preferred number of children and keys = key to a man’s heart. This tradition has now expanded to weddings, anniversaries and births.
After an interesting voyage through Europe, our romantic tale takes us across the Atlantic Ocean towards the intriguing lands of South Africa and Ghana, taking a swift deviation eastwards to the shores of Latin America, where we are captivated by the charming traditions of Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala.
South African women wear their love for all to see by pinning the name of their loved one on their sleeve, a tradition known as Lupercalia.
Everyone knows that chocolate is one of the world’s most loved Valentine’s gifts and since Ghana is amongst the world’s largest cocoa exporters, the Ghanaian pseudonym of this holiday is National Chocolate Day. Special chocolate themed menus are created for the day, as well as varying chocolate exhibitions across the country.
‘Dia dos Namorados’ (Lover’s Day) brings forth love on June 12th instead of February 14th in Brazil, where couples exchange gifts of flowers and chocolates, as well as enjoy music festivals and performances held throughout the country. Akin to Guatemala and Estonia, gift giving is not limited to couples, but given as a token of love to friends and family. Saint Anthony’s Day also falls on the following day, the patron saint of marriage, which sees single women carrying out rituals called “Simpatias” that might help secure them a husband with the help of Saint Anthony.
The Argentines can’t seem to get enough of celebrating their love on Valentine’s Day, so they have dedicated a whole week in July called ‘Semana de la Dulzura’ (Sweetness Week), whereby couples exchange kisses for sweet treats.
‘El Día del Cariño’ (Affection Day) marks Valentine’s in Guatamala and does not solely dedicate the day to romantic love, but also to expressing affection for family and friends. An elaborate and colourful celebration takes place, whereby revellers enjoy the day adorning themselves in feathered masks and Mayan-inspired clothing (there’s even a senior-citizen parade!).
Bringing up the rear, our Valentine adventure takes its final trek across the Pacific Ocean where we are dazzled by a grand finale of Asian legendary delights, from the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, China and South Korea.
The Philippines see mass wedding day celebrations sweep the country bringing together hundreds, if not thousands of couples to marry in unison in one big public ceremony. There was even an organised event held February 14th 2014, documenting a world record of 5,000 couples locking lips in one sitting!
Hordes of Thai lovesick women take their love problems to the Gods by heading to the Trimurti Shrine to pray to the Hindu Gods asking them for a husband in return for their offerings of red roses, candles and incense.
‘It’s raining chocolate, hallelujah!’. Japan and Ghana appear kindred spirits with regards to chocolate dominating the Valentine gift. Be that as it may, it’s the women in Japan who indulge their men on Valentine’s Day, showering them with chocolates to express their feelings of love, courtesy or social obligation. The chocolate gift holds great significance and the meaning behind it varies depending on the recipient, so it’s important to get it right!
The non-romantic ‘Giri-choko’ obligation chocolate is bestowed on close male family members and friends, bosses, colleagues and classmates.
The no affection ‘Cho-giri choko’ ultra-obligatory chocolate is reserved for those men where there is little affection, given purely out of obligation e.g. an unpopular colleague
The true feeling ‘Honmei-choko’ chocolate is solely for boyfriends, husbands and lovers, some of which are seen as extremely lucky men when their women go the extra mile favouring their loved ones with special handmade chocolates lovingly made by them.
The friend ‘Tomo-choko’ chocolate is exclusive to female friends.
It doesn’t end there; it’s like the ‘chocolate’ gift that keeps on giving! White Chocolate Day (Ai Kotaeru White Day = ‘Answer Love on White Day’) gives the men a chance to reciprocate their feelings on this day, exactly a month later (March 14th) by spoiling those women who gave gifts to them on Valentine’s Day. The ante is upped by ensuring the value of the chocolates is worth at least two or three times more, alongside a luxurious present of jewellery, lingerie, etc.
On the other hand, the Valentine Card is not as common in Japan as it is in western countries, hence the phrase “Happy Valentine’s” not being widely used.
If you thought Romeo and Juliet was a tragic tale, then Qixi will also break your heart. Equivalent to Valentine’s Day, this Seventh Night Festival in China, falls yearly on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, originating from the ill-fated story of two star-crossed lovers, Zhinu and Niulang, who were forced apart being born of different worlds. As folklore tells the story, Qixi allows the pair to reunite once a year to once again bask in their love. This day also sees single women preparing offerings of melon and other fruits to Zhinu in hopes of finding a good husband, whilst couples head to temples to pray for happiness and prosperity.
Another Valentine’s tradition reveals itself at the Sisters’ Meal Festival celebrated by the Miao people, where serenading suitors are offered a masterful array of rice dishes with hidden items setting the fate of a relationship. Should two chopsticks be found in the rice then love is in the air, but if a clove of garlic emerges, then romance has died a death before it has even begun.
South Korea seems to have taken the Japanese celebrations a step further, by introducing an informal 3rd celebration exactly a month after ‘White Day’ on April 14th. This is for singletons who get to either mourn their single status or revel in their single life, by eating a bowl of white Korean noodles with black bean sauce, generally referred to as black noodles (jajangmyeon). However, South Koreans are also seen as a fairly romantic nation and as such, have introduced a day each month that celebrates love in one form or another, e.g. December 14th = hug day and June 14th = Kiss Day.
And so this Valentine’s Day has reached its final act, a fascinating performance of love, friendship, tradition and chocolate! All there is left to do is to wish you all a Happy Valentine (make the most of love that is all around!)
A Valentine Story by Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, February 2017
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