I Love You: Valentine’s Day Customs from Around the World

Chelsea Sauve

Old School Valentine’s Day Cards

Love is the premise of the day. In North America, Valentine’s Day is filled with chocolate, roses, a glass of wine and Netflix tuned to The Notebook.  Amongst a few of the traditions practiced in the North American conception of the day, love is in the air on the 14th of February each year.

While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day remain fairly vague, I came across an explanation which traces the day to one famous poem. It is suggested that February 14th was the date upon which English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem Parlement of Foules from 1382, expressed that it was on Valentine’s day “when every bird comes there to choose its mate”. While there is skepticism as to whether the mating actually occurred on February 14th, the line from Chaucer’s poem gained much popularity in Europe and with the rise of courting for love, Valentine’s Day became a day devoted to romantic love – committed to the passion of lovers and their letters of affection for one another.

This celebration of love has now moved well beyond Europe and has manifested itself in almost every continent!

In whatever language you speak, you can find a word to express your love for another. English speakers say ‘I love you’, French speakers say ‘Je vous aime’, Hebrew speakers say “אוהב”, Arabic speakers say “الحب”. Every variant of the word expresses the same sentiment, serving as proof of the universality of love. Love for family, friends, and of course, for romance.

But how do these different cultures express their love on Valentine’s Day?

The flavours of Italy….

In Italy, Valentine’s day traditions included husband spottings, where it was believed that the first man a woman saw on Valentine’s day would be the man she would marry within the year. Today, Valentine’s day is celebrated with the exchange of gifts, specifically the baci perugina which are small chocolate covered hazelnuts wrapped in a romantic quote.

Star-crossed lovers in China…

In China, the equivalent to Valentine’s Day is Qixi, or the Seventh Night Festival.

This falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year, and celebrates the story of star-crossed lovers Zhinu and Niulang of Chinese lore. The story goes like this. Zhinu was the beautiful daughter of a heavenly goddess, and Niulang was a poor cow herder who fell in love. The two married and had twins; however, bliss was not to be. When Zhinu’s father learned of their marriage, he sent his queen to bring Zhinu back to the stars, separating Zhinu and Niulang for good. Yet, the King became merciful when he heard the cries of Niulang and their children, so he allowed Zhinu and Niulang to meet once a year on Qixi.  During Qixi, unmarried women prepare offerings of melon and other fruits to Zhinu hoping that she will bring them luck in finding a good husband, while couples attend temple in order to pray for continued happiness and prosperity.

Once darkness sweeps the land on the Seventh Night Festival, people look to the sky and watch as stars Vega and Altair (Zhinu and Niulang, respectively) pass one another in the sky witnessing the star-crossed lovers annual reunion.

Japanese: The Chocolate Exchange

The Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day on February 14th followed by its accompanying White Day on March 14th.

Chocolate gifting is at the heart of Valentine’s day in Japan where different types of chocolate represent different intentions – chocolate of love, “Honmei-choco”, and courtesy chocolates, “Giri-choco”. Typically, the “Honmei-choco” are homemade, as culturally it is thought that ready made chocolate from shops does not represent true love. In a very heteronormative take on Valentine’s Day love, on February 14th, females provide gifts, typically homemade chocolate, to males. However, on March 14th, the male must return the gift he received on February 14th, meaning that technically, the female chooses her own gift – lucky gals! Most often times this gift is supplemented by cookies, jewelry, white lingerie and more, as there is a tradition that the return gift should be 2-3 times more valuable than the Valentine’s Day gift.

Meanwhile in Israel the Day of Love is a Minor Religious Holiday….

The Jewish day of love, known as Tu B’av, is a minor holiday upon which many Jews choose to be married. In Israel and in the Diaspora, Jews celebrate this day in much the same way Valentine’s Day is celebrated. Observed on the 15th month of Av in the Jewish calendar, Tu B’av has traditionally celebrated the day upon which young, unmarried girls in Biblical times would dance around the vineyards in white garments, relishing the hopes of finding a husband.

All You Need Is Love

These are just a few of the many quirky and beautiful Valentine’s Day traditions that exist abroad. So perhaps your next Valentine’s Day should be spent traveling the world?

In all seriousness, who could say no to a day filled with such loveliness?

Well, the answer is many people don’t enjoy the day! Other endearing titles for the day include Single Shaming Day, inducing some to promote events titled Pal-entine’s Day where a love of friendship is embraced. Valentine’s Day alternatives such as this are becoming increasingly popular in North America, where the romance is being replaced with a celebration of friendship love, family love, and all other love that isn’t solely targeting the coupled amongst us. This tradition of celebrating friendship has long lived in Finnish culture, where the day is titled “Friend’s Day” – directed at friends instead of lovers. Or, on a darker note, one could head to South Korea on April 14th to take part in Black Day, which is dedicated to singles. On this day, it is customary for singles to mourn their solitude and eat black bean paste noodles.

But wait. Let’s get back to the cheer of love, love, love….

Share the Love

Let’s be real. The whole day is about sharing the love. Love between family, friends, and lovers – it is a celebration of caring for another person in the purest, most beautiful way one can. So whatever you want to call it, let’s share the love broadly, with whoever you love, whenever you want to share it (but not wherever, let’s keep it clean folks!).

From me to you, here’s a little love in whatever way you practice and accept it.


Fun Valentine’s Day facts:

Why was the red rose selected as the flower of love? Venus, the Roman goddess of love selected the red rose as her favorite flower and since red stands for strong feelings, the red rose is deemed a flower of love.

Folklore: Many people once believed that a woman’s love was fated in the bird she saw flying overhead on Valentine’s day. If a woman saw a robin flying overhead on Valentine’s Day, she was destined to marry a sailor, whereas if she saw a sparrow, she would marry a poor man and be very happy, and finally, if she saw a goldfinch, she would marry a millionaire.