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When the stores are packed with flowers, chocolates, candies, and cards you know that St. Valentine is around the corner. Before Valentine’s Day became the mass-marketed consumer-frenzy holiday that it is today, it had its roots in ancient Roman history and traditions. There are varying accounts of how it all began, but the most popular story can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Claudius II.
The Roman ruler had banned marriage, claiming that single men made better soldiers. But a Roman priest named Valentine continued to marry couples in secret until he was imprisoned for his disobedience. The Roman priest was martyred on or around February 14 in the year 270 CE. How he became the patron saint of lovers remains a mystery, but one theory is that the church used the day of St. Valentine’s martyrdom to Christianize the old Roman “Lupercalia,” a pagan festival held around the middle of February.
Nowadays, the holiday means big business and people around the world celebrate St. Valentine’s Day by showing appreciation and affection for the people they love. In some countries, it is more of an excuse to share love and friendship than candy and cards.
February 14 is called “Día del Amor y de la Amistad,” the day of love and friendship. It is a time for people to show appreciation for anyone they care for. Balloons, flowers, stuffed animals, and cards show appreciation for romantic and platonic friends alike, so the gift giving isn’t limited to couples. One traditional way men in Mexico celebrate the day is to hire a mariachi to serenade their loved ones.
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in a unique style. It is the women who present gifts to the men. There is a long tradition of women giving chocolates to men on Valentine’s Day – either “Giri-choco” or “Honmei-choco”. Giri-choco is meant to be for friends, colleagues, bosses, and close male friends. “Giri” means “obligation,” hence this Giri-choco has no romance involved. On the other hand, Honmei-choco is given to a boyfriend, lover, or husband and represents true love. Japanese women often prepare the Honmei-choco themselves as many of them think it is not true love if they just buy the readymade chocolate at shops.
Valentine’s Day is becoming more popular in China. In fact, the Qixi Festival is often called “Chinese Valentine’s Day.” The Qixi Festival, celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar (which usually falls in August), is a celebration based on a romantic legend about a weaver girl and an ox herder. Traditionally, Chinese women commemorated this festival by praying to find good husbands or gain great sewing skills. Now, however, the Chinese celebration is more akin to Western Valentine’s Day.
Brazil celebrates “Dia dos Namorados” or Lover’s Day, on June 12. Instead of celebrating St. Valentine, Brazilians honor St. Anthony, the patron saint of marriage and matchmaking. People go out to a nice dinner, send flowers, and celebrate with their significant other with romance and love.
Colombia is another example of a country that doesn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day in February. In Colombia, Valentine’s Day is commemorated September 20 and it is popular to send gifts from secret admirers.
In Guatemala, there is a similar holiday on the 14th of February that is known as “Día del Cariño.” Guatemalans exchange sentimental goodies and treats similar to the United States, but it is a broader holiday and encourages people to show their love for friends and co-workers too.
Italy celebrates Valentine’s Day as a lovers-only holiday with gift exchanges and romantic dinners. One of the most popular gifts is Baci Perugina chocolates, which have a romantic message written inside the foil. Baci’ means ‘kiss’ in Italian. “When couples exchange the Baci Perugina—a little box of those small hazelnut chocolates—they’re exchanging kisses."
With a reputation for romance around the world, Paris is a popular destination for couples on Valentine’s Day. Couples used to attach a padlock on the Pont des Arts "love lock bridge" and throw the key in the River Seine. The locks were removed in 2015 when the bridge railings were replaced with new railings that made it difficult to attach a lock. However, determined star-crossed lovers continue to attach locks to other bridges around Paris.
You won’t find the Welsh celebrating Saint Valentine — instead, people in Wales celebrate Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on January 25. One traditional romantic Welsh gift is a love spoon. As early as the 17th century, Welsh men carved intricate wooden spoons as a token of affection for the women they loved. Patterns and symbols were carved into these love spoons, each signifying a different meaning. A few examples include horseshoes, which stand for good luck; wheels, which symbolize support; and keys, which symbolize the keys to a man’s heart.
February 14 isn’t a big deal in Israel, but the ancient Jewish ceremony of Tu B’av feels like Valentine’s Day. Celebrated in the summer, “it’s about love and rebirth.” Israelis celebrate romantic love with flowers and heart-shaped treats.
In South Korea, the gift-giving starts on February 14, when it’s up to women to woo their men with chocolates, candies, and flowers. The tables turn on March 14, a holiday known as White Day, when men not only shower their sweethearts with chocolates and flowers but up the ante with a gift. There is a third holiday: Black Day. On April 14, it’s customary for singles to mourn their solitary status by eating dark bowls of jajangmyeon, or black bean-paste noodles.
Traditional red roses symbolizing romance and love are not the preferred flower to gift for the Danish. Instead, the go-to Valentine’s Dayspring perennial is the snowdrop, a delicate white flower. In addition to the flowers, humorous poems known as gaekkebrev, are also gifted. Poems are signed with a series of dots so that the receiver is left to wonder who their admirer is. Should the identity of the poet be guessed, then the custom is that he will gift an Easter egg later in the year.
The phrase “wear your heart on your sleeve” is an actual custom to the women in South Africa on February 14. The ancient Romans participated in this practice, a tradition known as Lupercalia, where women would pin the name or names of their love interest on their shirtsleeves. In many cases, this tradition brought to light the identity of many secret admirers. In addition to this custom, the typical celebrations of love are exchanged with flowers and gifts and even special festivals marking Valentine’s Day.
Wherever you are in the world – and whatever your Valentine’s customs may be – one thing is for sure: celebrating love, friendship, admiration, and appreciation is universal. It’s just the way we do it that differs.
Happy Valentine’s Day!