Valentine's Day traditions in Germany and around the world
No matter whether you love it or loathe it, Valentine's Day is coming up and that means that people all over the world will be shouting their love from the rooftops, or else finally finding the courage to approach their secret crushes.
Most of us know Valentine's Day as a trend that flew over from America and involves exchanging cards and presents with partners. While the tradition only arrived relatively recently, many countries have managed to make the day their own. So where exactly did this "Day of Love" come from, and how is it marked in Germany and other countries around the globe?
The origins of Valentine's Day
Like so many other European traditions and holidays, Valentine's Day is a combination of both a pagan and a Christian festivity: the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, and the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine.
In mid-February, the Romans would celebrate a festival of fertility to mark the coming of spring and honour the god of Agriculture, Faunus. It was known as Lupercalia. It involved sacrifices and rituals to boost fertility and, according to legend, a kind of “lottery” that would see the single women paired up with eligible men, with the matches often ending in marriage.
At the end of the fifth century, Lupercalia was deemed “unchristian” by Pope Gelasius I and outlawed. As so often was the case with once popular pagan customs, it seems that it was superseded by a Christian feast day in an effort to “Christianise” the mid-February celebrations. The feast day in question was the feast of Saint Valentine.
Why is February 14 a special day?
In the eighth century the Feast of Saint Valentine was fixed on February 14. It’s not exactly clear who the day was named for, since there are several saints in the Catholic Church named Valentine connected to February 14, and a whole host of overlapping stories surrounding them. The association of Valentine with love pops up in several of these stories.
One, for instance, tells of a priest who was martyred by the Emperor Claudius II Gothicus in 270. While imprisoned, he is said to have fallen in love with the jailor’s daughter and wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine”. In another story, he performed marriages for soldiers who were forbidden to wed.
Where does love come in?
The association of the day with love became cemented in the 14th and 15th century with the rise of the notions of courtly love and chivalry, and the common belief that February 14 was the beginning of the birds’ mating season. Around this time, written Valentine’s greetings began to appear, the oldest of which is a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans.
Over time, these handwritten notes gave way to mass-produced greetings cards, boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers and other gifts. The first commercial greetings cards were printed in the US in the mid-19th century.
Is Valentine’s Day a holiday?
Saint Valentine’s Day is not marked as a public holiday in Germany - or anywhere in the world, for that matter. It is marked as an official feast day by some churches.
What countries celebrate Valentine’s Day?
After originating in early modern England and spreading throughout the English-speaking world, Valentine’s Day has gone on to be celebrated in many other countries in South and Latin America, and East Asia, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Bangladesh, India, China, Iran, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea.
How to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Germany
The perception that Valentine's Day is an imported American tradition is perhaps why it is not embraced wholeheartedly in Germany. It is thought to have first arrived in the country in the late 1940s with the American soldiers who were stationed here after the Second World War and is thus often dismissed as an "imported custom" or a "day of commercialism".
Indeed, a 2018 survey by Statista found that just one in two Germans were planning on giving a special something to their loved one on February 14.
Nonetheless, Valentine's Day has grown in popularity over the last few decades, and even sprouted its own gift-giving quirks in Germany. Alongside the cards, flowers, chocolates and other romantic paraphernalia commonly seen in other countries, people in Germany like to gift their crushes with symbols of luck and lust.
Little pigs holding flowers or four-leaf clovers, or sometimes (shield your eyes, children!) reclining provocatively on chocolate hearts, are often exchanged between courting couples. The heart-shaped, decorated gingerbread cookies that grace many-a Christmas market are also a popular Valentine's gift.
Valentine’s Day traditions around the world
So, there you have it: Germany has marzipan pigs and gingerbread hearts. How does this compare to the rest of the world? Here are some countries that have managed to add their own flair to February 14.
These days, the Netherlands roughly copies the American example of Valentine’s Day, and it is not a very popular occasion. In attempts to make the date gain popularity around the 70s, it was promoted with a somewhat different identity.
Driven by the need to push flower sales, companies promoted Valentine’s Day in the Netherlands as more of a day of friendship. Special appreciation was given to road workers, public transport chauffeurs and politicians, rather than to partners. People were urged to use the day to thank friends and colleagues for their care.
Valentine's traditions in Japan
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is a beloved tradition with its own interpretation. On February 14, women give chocolates to men, but not the other way around. Although love is a strong theme in this giving-ceremony, and crushes are definitely approached, male acquaintances such as co-workers or teammates will often be given chocolates as well. These are called giri-choco, or obligation chocolates.
Chocolates given with romantic intent, or honmei-choco, are often more elaborate than the giri-choco, and they can even be hand-made. One month later, on March 14, men can return the favour by giving the girls presents as a thank you for the chocolates. This day is called White Day. It was started by a confectionery company in the hopes to elevate their (white) marshmallow sales.
Valentine's Day traditions in South Korea
Korea generally has similar traditions to Japan’s Valentine’s Day, with one interesting addition. One month after White Day, on April 14, is Black Day. On this date, singles who haven’t received any favours in the previous two months get a celebration all to themselves. They go out and eat black bean paste noodles, or just go drinking with their friends.
In Taiwan, it’s mainly the men who do the gift-giving. What's unique about it is the tradition of presenting one’s love with roses, with the colour and number of the flowers having special significance:
- A red rose represents love
- One red rose means "My only love"
- 11 roses mean "You’re my favourite"
- 99 roses mean "Forever"
- 108 roses mean "Marry me"
Taiwan also celebrates a separate festival of love on July 7, along with China, and they celebrate White Day as well.
Some young South Africans follow an old Roman tradition called Lupercalia, in which they pin the name of the one they fancy on their sleeve, as a declaration of love.
Some theories say that Valentine’s Day originated from France. This is because the first “Valentine” was sent by a French Duke, Charles, Duke of Orleans. The story goes that he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and sent love letters to his wife.
There used to be a French Valentine’s Day tradition called a love lottery, in which singles were paired up with partners. If the men didn’t like their match they would leave and the jilted women would burn their pictures at a bonfire. This became such a raucous ritual that it is no longer practised.
In the Philippines, city councils often organise mass civil weddings to help disadvantaged couples who may not have the money for a regular ceremony. A popular date for these mass weddings is right before Valentine’s Day. Sometimes, several hundreds of couples can be married at the same time.
In Denmark, lovers celebrate Valentine’s Day by exchanging white flowers that they call "snowdrops". There is a rather creative side to their traditions as well, as there are two kinds of cards a person can give to a loved one.
The first is the Lover’s Card, which is rather like the traditional Valentine’s Day card. The other is the Gaekkebrev, a humorous anonymous love poem that challenges the receiver to guess who sent it. The Gaekkebrev is usually gifted by the men. If the identity of the giver is guessed correctly, the receiver is awarded an Easter egg later that year.
One of the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts in Italy is chocolate-covered hazelnuts wrapped in a romantic quote. These are called Baci Perugina.
An old belief in certain regions of Italy said that the first man a woman saw on Valentine’s Day would be, or resemble, the man she was to marry. This led to the now-abandoned tradition of young Italian girls waking up before dawn so that they could spot their prospective husbands early.
In recent years, another alternative to Valentine's Day has been gaining popularity. If Valentine’s Day is a bit kitsch for you, or in your mind has become too much of a commercialised holiday, have you heard of National Lover’s Day? Celebrated on April 23 each year, National Lover’s Day is another opportunity to celebrate your significant other and show them how much they mean to you!
Are you from one of the countries described, and do you have something to add? Or does your home country have an interesting Valentine’s Day tradition of its own? Let us know in the comments below!
Sections of this article originally appeared on IamExpat in the Netherlands.