Valentine’s Day is the day each year that we’re focused on answering these questions. How did this tradition begin, and how is it celebrated around the world?
The popular legend says Valentine’s Day is named after St. Valentine, a Christian priest in Rome who was persecuted for performing marriages in secret after the emperor outlawed young men from marrying. Sentenced to execution in 270 CE, Valentine supposedly composed a letter while in his prison cell to his beloved—possibly his jailor’s daughter—who visited him during his confinement. It was signed “from your Valentine.” Valentine became a saint after his death, and Pope Gelasius named February 14 his saint’s day around 500 CE.
Another theory on why Valentine’s Day is celebrated in mid-February, along with that being the possible date of St. Valentine’s death or burial, is that the Christian church may have placed it at this time to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia—a Roman fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus—which is celebrated on February 15.
During the Middle Ages, in France and England it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of the mating season of birds, giving the day romantic and sexual connotations. Written valentine cards/notes began to appear after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
The modern origins of current Valentine’s Day traditions can be traced to 19th century England when people began to anonymously mail valentine cards. Early versions of valentine cards in England in the 1880s were made of satin and lace and ornamented with flowers, ribbons, and images of cupids or birds.
In the 20th century, in addition to cards, chocolate, flowers, and jewelry began to be given as gifts on Valentine’s Day.
Celebrations Around the World
Around the world, Valentine’s Day is celebrated much like in the United States, with cards, chocolate, and flowers. But some countries also have their own particular customs.
A few traditions in Great Britain include the following:
- Unmarried girls used to wake up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day to stand by their window and wait for men to pass. They believed that the first man they saw, or someone who looked like him, would be their husband within a year.
- Women write the names of the men they’re interested in on paper and attach the pieces of paper to clay balls that are then placed in water. The first ball to surface will be her future husband.
- Children sing special songs and are rewarded with candy, fruit, or money.
- People bake valentine buns filled with caraway seeds, plums, and raisins.
- Lovers compose verses, sonnets, and poetry for their significant other.
- In Norfolk, “Jack Valentine” knocks on the rear door of houses and leaves sweets and presents for children.
In Scotland, each single person writes his/her name on a piece of paper. People pick names from two hats (one for men, and one for women) to pair up for the evening. Presuming that the men and women don’t match up evenly, the men must usually stay with the women who picked their name.
The Welsh give love spoons to their lovers on Valentine’s Day (along with jewelry, chocolates, flowers, and candy).
In the past, France celebrated a tradition of “une loterie de amour”. The single men and women would yell at each other from facing houses to pair up. Women who were rejected by their men the next day would come together at a bonfire and burn pictures of the men. The custom was later banned due to its increasing maliciousness.
Denmark has three unique customs (in order of importance):
- “Lover’s Cards” are exchanged. These cards traditionally were transparent, and when held to the light would show a man handing his beloved a gift.
- People send pressed white flowers (“snowdrops”) to friends.
- Men send women “gaekkebrevs” (“joking letters”)—written rhymes by the sender. If the woman recipient guesses who sent it (it is signed with dots—in the number of letters in the sender’s name), he rewards her with an Easter egg on Easter.
In Slovenia, Valentine’s Day has an agricultural/nature emphasis, and farmers plant the first seeds of the year. They believe birds get engaged or married on this day. Children make wood or paper boats and place candles in them to float down the river—symbolizing no need for light now, as the days are getting longer.
The traditional holiday for lovers in Romania is “Dragobete” (“drag”= “dear”) on February 24. It is named after a character from Romanian folklore who was the son of Baba Dochia, an old woman associated with the return of Spring.
In Latvia and Lithuania, people put stickers on faces and clothing of friends or relatives.
Like in Britain, unmarried girls in Italy used to wake up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day to stand by their window and wait for men to pass. They believed that the first man they saw, or someone who looked like him, would be their husband within a year.
In Italy, this holiday is specifically for lovers (not also for family and friends like in other countries) and is celebrated with gifts, dinners, and getaways. The popular gift is Baci Perugina—a small, chocolate-covered hazelnut containing a small slip of paper with a romantic quote in four languages.
Brazil’s romantic day, Dia dos Namorados (“Day of Lovers”), is celebrated on June 12 for two reasons: June 13 is St. Anthony’s Day, when women perform “simpatias”—rituals to snag a good boyfriend, and because mid-February is often Carnival time. For Dia dos Namorados, women write the names of their love interests on folded-up pieces of paper. Whichever name they pick the next day will be who they marry.
In most Latin American countries, the day of romance is “Día del Amor y la Amistad” (“Day of Love and Friendship”). Gifts are given, and acts of appreciation to loved ones and friends are done. People have an “amigo secreto” (“secret friend”), which is similar to “Secret Santa” at Christmastime.
In South Africa, people (usually just women) pin hearts to their sleeve with their lover’s name on them.
Valentine’s Day is much less frequently celebrated than the main day of romance in China, which is usually celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month and called “Qixi Festival—“Night of Sevens”, “Festival of Double Sevens”, “Seven Sister’s Festival”, or “Daughter’s Festival”. It celebrates the legend of cowherder Niu Lang and weaving maid Zhi Nu, the seventh daughter of the Emperor, who fall in love when he sees her by the river. He takes away her clothes so she must stay on earth and not return to the heavens. However, her grandmother comes to retrieve her and separates the two into two constellations in the sky separated by the Milky Way—only to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. On this day, magpies form a bridge with their wings for Zhi Nu to cross to meet her husband.
To celebrate this day, lovers visit the Temple of the Matchmaker and pray for love, happiness, and marriage. Singles also visit the temple to ask for luck in love. On this night, unmarried girls pray to Vega, the Weaving Maid star, and when it is high up in the sky, they perform a test by putting a needle on the water surface. If the needle doesn’t sink, it’s a sign of girl’s maturity indicating she is eligible to find a husband. Girls who pass the test may ask for one wish. It is also traditional for young girls in China to carve melons on this day.
This is usually celebrated, like in China, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Women write their phone numbers on oranges and throw them into the river for their dream man to find and pick up. Valentine’s Day on February 14 is legislated against by Islamic officials.
Vietnamese couples wear the same style and color of clothes on this day.
In Japan, the roles are reversed from most countries and women give chocolate to all the men close to them (i.e., coworkers, friends, lovers, etc.) on February 14. The quality of the chocolate (there are three types) depends on how she feels towards the man. On March 14, “White Day”, named for white chocolate, the men who received the “good chocolate” buy the women a more expensive gift.
In South Korea, the 14th day of every month is dedicated to an aspect of love (e.g., May 14: Rose Day; June 14: Kiss Day; Oct. 14: Wine Day; Dec. 14: Hug Day). Koreans observe the chocolate tradition of Japan. Here, they also have “Black Day” on April 14th. On this day, the women who didn’t receive anything on White Day get together to eat black bean noodles (“jajanmyeon”) and lament their singleness.
In Taiwan, both February 14 and July 7 are romantic days. In February, it is the reverse of Japan: men give gifts to women, and women reciprocate on White Day in March. Men give expensive roses and flowers to their beloved. The color and number have much significance. 1=only love; 11=favorite; 99=forever; 108=“marry me”.
The 15th day of the month of Av (“Tu B’Av”)—usually in late August—is the festival of love in Israel. In ancient times, girls would wear white dresses and dance in the vineyards where the boys would be waiting for them. In modern times, this is a popular day to pronounce love, propose marriage, and give gifts of cards or flowers.
India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia
These countries usually don’t celebrate the holiday and look upon it negatively as a foreign, Christian holiday and cultural contamination from the West. However, in India and somewhat in Iran, it is starting to become popular with the people. In India, traditionalists fear that this globalization will destroy the tradition of arranged marriages. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it has been banned due to the sending of public sexual greetings.