Love is in the air. It’s on cards, in shop windows, iced onto cookies, sung on the radio and emblazoned onto an army of sweet fluffy toys; there’s no escaping Valentine’s Day.
Every year lovers around the world spend billions on flowers, cards, confectionary and trinkets to tell their significant other how much they care. The United States alone sends over 190 million cards every February 14th in expressions of affection dedicated to the delicate business of romance.Of course, not everyone celebrates the festival of flirting in the same way; countries around the world have a variety of traditions that let lovers express their deepest feelings. And it’s not just the amorous who get in on the act: some nations use the date to celebrate maternal love, or as an excuse to celebrate friendships.
There’s no need for cynical singles to miss out either; the love-less can mark the day with Singles Awareness Day (SAD). Lonely hearts buy presents for themselves or party with other singles to celebrate their freedom. It might be a departure from ‘traditional’ Valentine’s celebrations, but the origin of these is somewhat questionable.
For centuries Christians have marked the martyrdom of St Valentine with feasts and various tales about whom the soppy saint may have been. Legends, myths and fanciful fables have surrounded the hero of heartthrobs. Few, if any, can be verified, but much has been eagerly embraced by greetings card companies and chocolate manufacturers.
Whatever your preferred version of Valentine’s Day, we hope you enjoy it with your nearest and dearest, but don’t be afraid to tell them how you feel whatever day of the year it is. Here’s how the day is celebrated around the world.
Ladies take the lead – Japan
In the west it always seems to be the men that make the first romantic move. Even in this day and age we expect the gentlemen to approach the ladies, to pick up the bill on the first date, and to eventually go down on one knee and pop the big question.
Japan does things differently. For a country famous for its restraint and reserve, Japanese ladies go all out on Valentines Day and seize the initiative.
Women give out chocolates to the men in their life, symbolising the nature of their relationships. Handsome chaps can look forward to expensive boxes of ‘honmei-choko’, which displays romantic intent.
Even those who aren’t romantically attached can look forward to chocolate as ‘giri-choko’ is given out to colleagues, bosses and classmates. Literally translating as ‘obligation chocolate’, the gift doesn’t symbolise anything more than not wanting to leave anyone out. If anyone receives the cheapest ‘cho-giri-choko’, or ‘ultra-obligitory chocolate’, they know very well they are not at all popular.
It’s not only the men who get to dig into boxes of sweet treats. The chaps return the favour in March when White Day rolls around. Rather shamelessly invented by chocolate companies in the 1980s, Japanese men are supposed to buy gifts in return for the ladies who gave them chocolates in February.
White is supposed to symbolise the purity of the receiving women, and gifts are expected to be valued at least three times that of the gifts given to the men. Lucky ladies can look forward to boxes of white chocolate, jewellery and even luxury lingerie from their colleagues and friends.
Wear your heart on your sleeve – South Africa
Valentine’s day is all about telling someone how you feel. Some countries will do this with gifts, others with messages and notes. South African have a slightly more fashionable way of declaring their affections.
Passion runs high in the Rainbow Nation, with businesses offering deals for romancing couples and restaurant tables booking up quickly. This may be fairly typical of Valentine’s Day the world over, but South Africans draw on an ancient tradition to announce their amorous intentions.
Lupercalia saw Romans perform rituals to purify their homes and celebrate love, health and fertility. Single ladies would decorate their clothes with the names of eligible young men, in the hope of attracting their attention and affection.
Whilst South Africans have left the slaughtering of goats and running naked through the streets to the Romans, the decoration of garments has continued. Love-struck girls will sew the name of their crush onto the sleeve of a shirt.
It’s a bold move to strut around declaring your love to the whole town, but it’s surely more exciting than an anonymous card.
Thank your friends – Estonia
Love is a dangerous game. When heartbreak strikes and the tears begin, we turn to our most trusted friends to help us pick up the pieces and carry on.
So it’s fitting that somewhere in the world, people spend Valentine’s Day thanking long-suffering friends for their support. Estonia marks February 14th with a sõbrapäev, or ‘Friends Day’.
Pals give each other flowers and gifts, swapping themed candy and humorous cards. Gangs of friends get together to raise a glass and thank one another for the help offered throughout the year.
Increasingly, Estonians are also turning to the quest for romantic love on Valentine’s Day. Hopping aboard an actual Love Bus gives single Estonians the chance to meet people on the move and do some literal speed dating.
Flash the cash – Singapore
Love may be blind, but she listens intently, and in Singapore money talks.
The city-state enjoys a booming economy and some luxury lifestyles, making Singaporeans some of the biggest spenders on romantic gestures.
Eating out at fine restaurants, staying in luxury hotels and splurging on decadent gifts make for the typical Valentine’s Day in Singapore, with 60% of the population saying they spend between USD $100 and USD $500 on their amour.
Dance in the vineyards – Israel
People tend to dance when under the influence of either wine or love. In Israel they celebrate all three on the same day.
February might see the usual swapping of cards and gifts, but a second round of romance sweeps through Israel in July with Tu B’Av. One Jewish scholarly source described that date as the second happiest day of the year after Yom Kippur.
On both dates, unmarried girls dress in borrowed white dresses and dance through the vineyards hoping to entice suitors’ attentions. Long traditions explain why the date is important, but most Israelis see Tu B’Av as a great day for romantic gestures and proposing.
The festival of matchmaking and love from thousands of years ago also marks the lifting of the ancient ban on intermarriage between Jewish tribes. So it’s only appropriate that Israelis celebrate by searching for a partner.
Tell your mother you love her – Iran
Valentine’s Day isn’t outlawed in Iran as it is in Saudi Arabia, but it is not popular with the religious rulers. It’s seen by clerics as promoting pre-marital sex, and traders selling heart-shaped gifts can find themselves in trouble.
Although there is a thriving black market in plastic roses and squeaky teddy bears, Iranians use Valentine’s Day to celebrate the other ladies in their lives.
The day known as Sepandarmazgan follows three days after Valentine’s Day and has roots in ancient Persian culture. Originally a festival to mark the fertility of the land, the day is now used to express love and gratitude to wives and mothers.
A tradition with roots over 3,000 years old, the festival is a day when roles reverse in the home and men take on household tasks. The ladies get a chance to put their feet up and enjoy being pampered by husbands and children.
Women can expect special meals of traditional soup and bread before being spoilt with gifts. This day sees mothers and wives thanked for their sacrifices and honoured as the personification of Mother Earth.
Anonymous letters – UK
Blushing Brits send 25 millions cards each Valentine’s Day, but nobody is quite sure who they are.
In a tradition that has spread through much of the world, the cards are often unsigned by the sending suitor. Instead a coy question mark teases the recipient about the identity of their admirer.
This quirky feature of British romance comes from a legend about St Valentine himself. Facing execution for his Christian beliefs, the martyr left an affectionate note for the jailer’s daughter. In a pledge of love he signed the letter ‘from your Valentine’.
After years of hiding behind the saint’s name, Brits stopped signing their cards in favour of anonymous punctuation.
A celebration every month – South Korea
Koreans love Valentine’s Day so much they celebrate it 12 times year. The holiday was introduced to the peninsula by the Japanese, along with White Day.
As in Japan, the ladies dish out presents to male lovers, friends and colleagues and the gentlemen reply the following month. But in Korea the search for love continues.
Lonely singles who didn’t receive any romantic gestures in the previous two months get together and commiserate during Black Day. The day takes its name from the thick dark sauce that covers the jajangmyeon noodles that singles gather to eat on the 14th April.
The day is part speed-dating and part support group. Singles gather in restaurants to swap stories, whilst also getting the chance to flirt, joke, knock back Soju wine and mock the whole ridiculous calendar of ‘romantic’ holidays. And there are plenty to choose from.
May 14th is rose day, when couples dress in yellow and swap roses, whilst singles quaff yellow curry. June is all about kisses and July sees silver changing hands; the entire year is packed with excuses to swap romantic gestures. Although November seems to be a little less affectionate, with Koreans swapping thin cookies to wish each other luck in becoming tall and slender.
Love Spoons – Wales
The Land Of Song is a romantic landscape of rolling hills and Celtic folklore. The Welsh celebrate their heritage in style on Dydd Santes Dwynwen, or St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25th.
The Saint herself is the patron saint of lovers, a title bestowed on her thanks to several different legends. All speak of her involvement with handsome Maelon and her father’s disapproval. The stories diverge over what happens next: in some, Dwynwen meets an angel who freezes Maelon in a block of ice. All stories conclude with Dwynwen devoting herself to God and swearing off romantic love all together.
Romance in Wales is steeped in tradition, with lovers exchanging intricately carved spoons to declare their love. The utensils were originally hand-carved by hopeful men to their potential brides’ fathers as a display of their woodworking skill and the seriousness of their affections.
The carvings often include totems for a happy marriage; hearts for love, a lock for security and a horseshoe for luck.
Dia dos Namorados – Brazil
Brazil is famous for the massive spectacle that is carnival. Brazilians fill the streets with colourful costumes and energetic dancing in parades of excitement and celebration.
The floats sailing by and the samba wiggling past the cheering crowds is all a celebration of excess before the austere fasting of Lent. This often puts Brazil’s biggest party in conflict with Valentine’s Day.
Rather than have to pick between a citywide party and a romantic liaison, Brazil does both. February is set aside for raucous, riotous revelry, whilst June is just for lovers.
Aside from samba and swigging caipirinhas, the Brazilians enjoy celebrating the serious and tender commitment between couples, which is why their version of Valentine’s Day takes place in June.
Dia dos Namorados roughly translates to ‘day of the lovers’, and is celebrated on June 12th, referencing the feast day of St Anthony, which takes place on the 13th. The good saint was renowned for blessing the marriages of young newlyweds.
Enamoured couples swap cards, gifts and trinkets before heading out for a romantic date. The following day is spent at church, praying to St Anthony for him to bless their partnership with health and happiness.
The day is pretty busy for the saint, who also hears prayers from single ladies. Lonely ladies perform ‘simpatias’, rituals intended to bring them success when diving into the dating pool. It is hoped that a successful simpatia will bring marriage to the women in the coming year.
How is Valentine’s Day celebrated where you live? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer