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Valentine's Day Customs from Around the World

Updated on February 14, 2022
Chuck profile image

Chuck enjoys celebrating holidays with his family. This has led to an interest in researching & writing about holidays & their traditions.

A Roman Holiday that Spread to Europe and America

While originally a relatively minor religious holiday honoring one or more Italian saints named Valentine, the holiday known as Valentine's Day has, over the centuries, spread throughout Europe then to the New World and today it is being spread literally throughout the world.

Like other popular Christian holidays, the origins of Valentine's Day can be traced to pre-Christian festivals which the early Church elected to absorb and give a Christian focus rather than trying to suppress them.

As winter abates and spring begins to re-appear with its emphasis on mating and new life, the thoughts of people naturally turn to love.

A Young Lady's Cards Makes Valentine's Day Assessable to the Masses

Well into the nineteenth century, Valentine's Day was merely an occasion to court one's love with a tender letter, a poem or private gift.

However, that began to change in 1847 when Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts began designing and mass producing fancy cards for Valentine's Day which she sold in her father's stationary store.

In doing so, she made it possible for the rest of society to participate in the celebration of the holiday by expanding its focus to include platonic love in which people can express their care and affection for those close to them but who are not the objects of their romantic interests.

Of course, giving everyone the opportunity to express their friendship with those close to them in no way diminishes the erotic and romantic aspects of the day for those whose thoughts are on romantic love.

If anything, the new commercial aspects of the holiday have made it easier for the shy, the timid and those lacking natural grace and eloquence to take advantage of the availability of chocolates in fancy heart shaped boxes, beautiful ready-made bouquets of flowers and fancy cards inscribed with poetry composed by professionals to romantically convey their feelings of love.

Valentine's Day is Becoming Popular in Asia

Just as missionaries, fanning out from Italy and other centers of early Christianity around the Mediterranean, brought the custom of Valentine's Day, along with the gospel, to the inhabitants of Northern Europe, so too, have the business people of the global economy introduced the customs of Valentine's Day to the world beyond Europe and North America.

Romance and love are universal, which is why the custom of Valentine's Day is spreading. While the focus of the holiday remains one of lovers expressing their romantic love for each other, local customs and traditions add their influence thereby providing some differentiation in the celebration from country to country.

In the past ten years or so Valentine's Day has become become very popular in Asia particularly in India, some of the Gulf States in the Middle East and China.

Globalization, mass communication and increased travel and trade have all served to spread customs globally.

With romantic love being a universal emotion and Valentine's Day being a celebration of that love, it should no surprise that the celebration of Valentine's Day has become increasingly popular throughout the world.

Given that the celebration of Valentine's Day is both relatively new and a recent import from abroad, it should be no surprise that in places like the Gulf Region, India, Thailand and other parts of South Asia that the customs surrounding the celebration of Valentine's Day in those places are much like those in the U.S.

In the weeks before Valentine's Day stores fill with brightly decorated boxes of chocolates, cards and flowers.

On Valentine's Day itself people, especially spouses and lovers, exchange cards and gifts, with chocolates and flowers being the most common form of gifts.

The day has also become a popular choice for weddings and proposals of marriage as well as a night to go out and celebrate with one's love.

A search of the Internet for Valentine's Day customs will often mention traditional holidays in other nations that are like Valentine's Day, in that they celebrate romantic love, but are both celebrated at a different time of the year and have originated from a different tradition.

The Chinese have traditionally observed a Valentine's Day-like holiday in the late summer (falling on the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar which causes the date itself to vary according to our western calendar).

This holiday is variously known as Qi Xi (Night of Sevens), the Magpie Festival or other names associated with the stories and legends surrounding this holiday.

However, in recent times, the Chinese have also begun observing the Western Valentine's Day on February 14th as another day to celebrate romantic love with gifts and cards.

Qi Xi remains the major celebration with Valentine's Day being an additional, minor, celebration much like the observance of the Chinese New Year in the West .

Even though the Western traditional New Year's celebration takes place on December 31st / January 1st, many people find it enjoyable to join in the fun of the Oriental holiday whether it be accompanying friends from the Orient in their celebration or merely having dinner in an Asian restaurant decorated for the holiday.

Traditional Japanese Shinto Torii or Gate of Honor at Disney World, Orlando, Florida
Traditional Japanese Shinto Torii or Gate of Honor at Disney World, Orlando, Florida | Source

Some Unique Japanese and Korean Customs

While Valentine's Day is relatively new in other parts of Asia, the roots of the holiday in Japan and Korea go back further to the decade following the end of World War II.

Obviously, the post-war American occupation of Japan, along with the Korean War and the stationing of American troops in that nation since the start of that war, played a part in introducing the holiday to these nations, as did growing commerce and rising living standards.

However, the actual origins of the holiday appear to have been with Japanese, rather than global, candy manufacturers and this had led to some unique Japanese and Korean twists on the observance in those nations.

While in most countries it is the men who court the women on Valentine's Day with gifts of flowers, cards and candy, in Japan and Korea it is the women who give gifts of chocolate to men.

In Japan, It Is Women Who Purchase Chocolate for Men

Being both new and with foreign roots, seemed to enable Valentine's Day to become a day when women, who have traditionally been expected to be shy and wait for men to express their romantic feelings first, were allowed to make the first move and approach a man romantically with a gift of chocolate.

This custom seems to have started with a Japanese chocolate candy manufacturer who saw an opportunity in both the women's desire to celebrate this day and to break with tradition a bit.

The idea caught on and, seeing the opportunity to expand sales even more, chocolate manufacturers and retailers began encouraging the giving of chocolate to both men whom the women were attracted to romantically as well as other men in their lives.

There are two main classes of chocolate gifts with gifts of chocolate candy given to male friends and acquaintances, including supervisors and co-workers, being known as giri-choko and honmei-choko, which are given to the man whom the woman loves romantically.

Valentine's Day can be expensive for Japanese women, who often end up having to purchase a dozen or more gifts of giri-choko for the men in their lives as well as an expensive honmei-choko for the love of their lives.

Valentine Heart with globe
Valentine Heart with globe | Source

White Day on March 14 is When Men Are Expected to Purchase Candy for Women

However guys, before we rush to incorporate this Asian custom into our Western Valentine's Day traditions, it may help to learn a little more about the custom of giri-choko and honmei-choko gifts, beginning with a translation of the words giri-choko and honmei-choko.

Choko translates to chocolate, while giri means obligation and honmei roughly translates to true love.

While a woman may spend a good portion of her pay check purchasing giri-choko gifts for all of her male acquaintances on February 14th for Valentine's Day, the recipients of these gifts are then obligated (hence the name obligation chocolates) to reciprocate with gifts of chocolate, with the same or greater value, a month later on March 14th, known as White Day, which is another unique Japanese and Korean twist on Valentine's Day.

Like the traditions of giri-choko and honmei-choko, which were created by manufacturers to to increase business, White Day seems to have begun as a way to sell more candy.

The term White appears to refer to the color of marshmallows which were the type of candy originally marketed for this day. While the men who received gifts of giri-choko on Valentine's Day are obligated to return the favor on White Day, the recipients of honmei-choko are not only expected to repay with a gift but, by some accounts, the gift must cost as much as ten times that of the honmei-choko that he received a month earlier.

Today jewelry, lingerie and other types of romantic gifts have joined chocolate, the original White Day gift, as choices for men to give to their true love.

Financially, it is probably better for men in the West to simply continue to try to save up for Valentine's Day in the month and a half following Christmas rather then having their girlfriends and other female acquaintances set a benchmark with their gifts of giri-choko and honmei-choko, leaving the men in their lives a mere month to save up for a gift that exceeds the gift standard laid down by the women in their lives on Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is Becoming Popular Africa and Latin America as Well

In Latin America Valentine's Day is celebrated in a fashion similar to North America and Western Europe.

In some countries it is the only holiday celebrating romantic love while in other countries in the region there are other traditional holidays where romance is the focus and Valentine's Day, like in China, is simply an additional romantic holiday recently imported from abroad.

In Africa, the celebration seems to be most common in South Africa, the country whose main cultural roots are in Europe, where it is celebrated as a day for lovers in a fashion similar to Western Europe and North America. In other parts of Africa appears not to have caught on as yet.

Like other holidays, Valentine's Day has changed and evolved over the years.

What originally began as a Roman pagan celebration of erotic love and fertility, first evolved, under the influence of Christianity, to a celebration of romantic love and marriage and now continues to evolve into a global celebration of romantic love.

Despite its evolution and changes over time, Valentine's Day continues to be celebrated and enjoyed by lovers.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Chuck Nugent


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