10 Heart-Warming Valentine's Day Traditions Around the World
Learn about tokens of affection in France, Denmark, Japan, and South Africa.
Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14 in dozens of countries across the globe. And while the traditions associated with the romantic holiday differ greatly from region to region, the history of the holiday remains the same no matter where you celebrate it. Believe it or not, the international holiday of love—often marked by the exchange of romantic gifts and gestures—dates all the way back to fourth century Rome, where the Roman festival of Lupercalia was held every mid-February. The festival, which celebrated fertility and the coming of spring, was eventually renamed St. Valentine's Day by Pope Gelasius I near the end of the fifth century and the rest is, well, history.
Like love itself, the patron saint of Valentine's Day, Saint Valentine, is a little bit more of a mystery. Some historians say that Saint Valentine was a priest who was martyred by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus in 270 CE (Common Era) for sending a love letter—signed "from your Valentine"—to his jailer's daughter. Others believe that St. Valentine was a bishop who secretly married couples to spare the husbands from war. Either way, by the 14th century, Saint Valentine had become a figurehead of love throughout most of Europe. In the mid-1500s, the exchange of formal Valentine's Day messages—otherwise known as valentines—rose to popularity in countries like Italy and France, and by the late 18th century, ready-made, commercially printed cards were being mass-produced in dozens of locations around the world, including the United States and Australia.
As for the world at large? From eating noodles made from black bean paste in South Korea to making marzipan figurines in Spain, here are ten unique Valentine's Day customs from across the globe.
Valentine's Day holds a lot of significance in Japan, although traditions associated with the holiday are quite different than those of the United States. For starters, in Japan on February 14 it is customary for women to buy gifts for their loved ones but their companions can't return gifts until one month later on March 14, which is known as White Day. Additionally, instead of flowers and jewelry, Japanese Valentine's Day presents traditionally come in the form of chocolate or candy, specifically ready-made giri choco for friends and family, and fancier honmei chocos for romantic partners.
France is believed to be one of the first countries to ever celebrate Valentine's Day, when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent love letters to his wife from prison all the way back in 1415. That's why it should come as no surprise that from February 12 to the 14, the French village of Saint-Valentin (Saint Valentine) celebrates the Festival of Love by decorating the town with a blanket of red roses, as well as a featuring a special mailbox just for mailing love letters called Cupid's Mailbox, and hosting a slew of weddings and marriage proposals.
In Italy, Valentine's Day—known as La Festa Degli Innamorati—celebrates the Roman goddess of love and marriage, Juno. On February 14, contemporary Italian couples often present each other with Baci Perugina, which are small, chocolate-covered hazelnuts wrapped in paper with romantic poetry. Another popular Italian Valentine's Day tradition involves couples professing their love to each other by attaching a padlock to a bridge or railing and throwing the key away. Can you say "molto" romantic?
Valentine's Day didn't officially become a holiday in Denmark until the early 1990s, but that doesn't mean the Danes haven't invented plenty of unique rituals to celebrate the day. Instead of gifting partners with flowers and candies, Danish sweethearts like to exchange "lover's cards" often with pressed white flowers inside them known as "snowdrops." The Danes also hold a V-Day tradition of presenting their crushes with gaekkebrev, a funny letter with a tongue-in-cheek poem signed anonymously. And if the receiver can correctly guess the sender, they'll be gifted with an Easter egg later in the year.
Although Valentine's Day falls on February 14 in South Korea, romantic couples in the regions celebrate the romantic holiday in various ways on the 14th day of every month of the year. For instance, March 14 marks White Day, where it's customary for sweethearts to exchange white-colored gifts, while May 14 marks "the day of roses"—where couples present each other with—you guessed it—roses. Single in South Korea? No worries; there's a holiday for you, too. April 14 is also known as Black Day, which is designated for uncoupled people who celebrate by eating black bean-paste noodles.
Since Carnival is usually held in February in Brazil, Brazilians opt to celebrate Dia dos Namorados, or "Lovers' Day," on June 12 instead. Along with exchanging chocolates, cards, flowers, and romantic gifts, music festivals and dance performances are held throughout the country in homage to Lover's Day. It's also customary to hold family dinners—so you can share the holiday with loved ones—on Dia dos Namorados, too.
Similar to other parts of the world, South Africans celebrate Valentine's Day by doling out flowers, candies, and other romantic gifts to loved ones. However, some women in South Africa also pay homage to their love interests on February 14 by pinning the names of their sweethearts on their shirt sleeves to publicly express their affections—a tradition that has roots in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia.
Instead of Valentine's Day, China celebrates Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. The festival, which is often referred to as "Chinese Valentine's Day," commemorates star-crossed lovers Zhinu (the daughter of a king) and Niulang (a poor cowherd), who in ancient Chinese folklore fell in love, married, and had twins—but were only allowed to see each other once a year on Qixi. Traditional Qixi festivities include going to a local temple to pray to Zhinu for wisdom, burning paper items as offerings, and at night, gazing at the stars to look for symbolic constellations.
While Valentine's Day is observed on February 14 in Spain with the traditional exchange of flowers, candies, and heartfelt gifts, the most romantic holiday of the year falls on October 9, when parts of Spain, particularly Valencia, celebrate the Day of Saint Dionysius, the patron saint of lovers. Also known as the feast of Saint Dionysus, locals celebrate the day with public parades and by making "macadora" figurines out of marzipan to present to their loved ones.
If you have a sweet tooth, then Ghana might be the place for you to celebrate Valentine's Day. February 14 is recognized as "National Chocolate Day" in Ghana, paying homage to the country's chief agricultural export, cocoa. Festivities on National Chocolate Day include live music and dance performances, parades, and, of course, lots of chocolate-related contests and activities—so come hungry.