Valentine’s Day wasn’t always the commercial holiday we celebrate today — nor is it always presently accompanied by roses, chocolates and inflated prix fixe menu prices.
In ancient Rome, mid-February was spent celebrating the Feast of Lupercalia, which involved men sacrificing animals and whipping women with their hides to stimulate fertility. Cute! Then, the men would draw the names of women from a jar and shack up with them for the rest of the festival.
The origins of “Valentine’s Day” are unclear, but some would say that those roads also lead to Rome. Emperor Claudius II executed two men on Feb. 14 — but in different years — who were both named Valentine. According to Roman legend, one of these men, Valentinus (or Saint Valentine), healed his jailer’s daughter’s blindness and left her a note signed, “From Your Valentine.”
The Catholic Church commemorated this martyrdom by instituting St. Valentine’s Day, which was likely conflated with Galatin’s Day (a celebration of the love of women) and Lupercalia, as well as a general movement to stamp out pagan traditions. In short: it retained the tamer “love” and “fertility” aspects, but without the nudity, violence and inebriation.
It wasn’t until 1913 that Hallmark began offering Valentine’s Day cards, but there was plenty of time in between for other countries to develop their own Valentine’s Day customs. Here’s some quick trivia to fuel your February water-cooler conversations.
1. In Japan, Women Are The Ones Who Give Chocolates To Men On February 14
There are special kinds of inexpensive giri choco, or “obligation chocolate,” that they give to their platonic friends to let them know where they stand (the nicer stuff is reserved for romantic partners). Then on March 14, or “White Day,” men up the ante and shower women with even fancier gifts and chocolate.
2. Eating Black Noodles Is An Appropriate Way To Mourn Your Loneliness In South Korea
South Korea has a similar tradition to Japan, except they follow it up with “Black Day” on April 14, which is basically a delicious pity party for single people who want to eat their feelings. Uncoupled people wear black and eat a black noodle dish called jajangmyeon.
3. In Wales, Spoons Are A Token Of Love
And not just in the “big spoon/little spoon” sense. Their version of Valentine’s Day takes place on Jan. 25 in celebration of Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers. It’s been a long-standing tradition — and not just once a year — for men to carve intricate spoons for women as a token of their affection.
A Welsh love spoon.
4. Valentine’s Day Is Actually Controversial In Some Places
Take Belgorod, Russia, for example, which banned the holiday because it is designed for commercial purposes and “does not help young people to develop spiritual and moral values.” Some nationalist Hindu groups also protest Valentine’s Day celebrations and the influence of Western culture in India.
5. Germans Love Pork — So Much So That They Exchange Pigs On Valentine’s Day
Not real ones, maybe just little keepsakes and cartoons. Pigs are considered a symbol of luck in Germany, and they’re just as common in Valentine’s Day displays as cupids are in the States.
6. Valentine’s Day Was Once Kind Of Violent In France
Back in the day, France would hold a loterie d’amour, or a matchmaking lottery, in which men and women would shout to each other from houses across the street and then pair off. Men had the option of ditching their date for another if they weren’t feeling it, and the leftover women would get together, burn pictures of the lovers who spurned them and vent their anger around a bonfire. Eventually, the French government had to ban the event because it got a little out of hand.
7. You Can Get Cold Feet And Height Anxiety In Thailand
In Thailand’s Prachinburi province, Thai couples who get married around Valentine’s Day often take part in a mountainside ceremony that involves rappelling ropes and dizzying heights.
8. Verona, Italy, Is The Site Of One Valentine’s Day Origin Story
According to legend, one of the martyred Valentines secretly wed couples in defiance of a Roman Emperor’s orders not to marry anyone during wartime. Today, there’s a four-day festival in Verona that celebrates love with heart-shaped lanterns and a letter-writing contest to Juliet.
9. The Phrase “Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve” Is Not Just An Expression In Some Places
In South Africa, women carry on some of the Lupercalian tradition by literally wearing their heart on their sleeves, or by pinning the name of their love interest to their shirts.
A Danish gaekkebrev. By Nillerdk, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
10. The Danes Prefer Secret Admirers
In Denmark, men give women anonymous cards, or “joking letters” called gaekkebrev, on paper snowflakes. They usually feature a funny poem, and if the woman guesses who it’s from, she earns an Easter egg on Easter Sunday. If she doesn’t, she owes an egg to the sender.
11. Valentine’s Day Was A Good Occasion To Test Your Psychic Abilities In Old-School England
Back in the day, women in England would place bay leaves on their pillows on Valentine’s Eve to bring dreams of their future husbands.
12. You Can Have A Mass Wedding In Manila
Valentine’s Day is a hugely popular day to get married in the Philippines, but luckily couples don’t have to compete for venue space. They just hold mass wedding ceremonies instead, where couples gather in public spaces to get married or renew their vows.
13. In Slovenia, St. Valentine, Or Zdravko, Is Actually A Patron Saint Of Spring
In Slovenia, Feb. 14 is considered the day when plants begin stirring back to life. Thus, Valentine’s Day is not so much about romance between humans, but between the birds and the bees. It’s believed that birds “propose” to each other and begin their mating season on this day, and it’s a tradition to walk barefoot through the frozen fields to see it all go down.
14. Valentine’s Day Has Commercial Implications On Other Continents, Too
Ghana is savvy about its Valentine’s Day customs. In Ghana, Feb. 14 has been dubbed “National Chocolate Day” in order to promote tourism and cocoa products, which are the backbone of Ghana’s economy.