In the United States, Valentine’s Day means cards, flowers, and hard-to-snag dinner reservations. As the Western holiday has spread around the world, many cultures have put their own spin on it. Some of these traditions—such as mass weddings in the Philippines—are charming, while others—like obligatory gift-giving in Japan—inspire feelings that are less than warm and fuzzy. When Valentine’s Day arrives on February 14, these are some ways lovebirds around the world will be celebrating.
1. Denmark celebrates Valentine's Day with poems and codes.
Valentine’s Day in Denmark is a chance for secret admirers to express their feelings with a twist. Instead of sending straightforward love letters, men in Denmark send funny poems called gaekkebrev to the objects of their affection. The paper-cut notes are signed anonymously with a line of dots at the bottom, one for each letter in the sender’s name. If recipients can guess their secret admirer’s identity based on this clue alone, the sender owes them an Easter egg.
2. In Japan, it's tradition for women to give men sweets on Valentine's Day.
In the 1950s, a chocolate company introduced Valentine’s Day to Japan in hopes of cashing in on the Western tradition. But something got lost in translation. Instead of showing more conventional images of men gifting chocolate to the ladies in their lives, early ads insisted Valentine’s Day was a chance for women to buy chocolate for men. The suggestion resonated with people, and today it’s a vital part of Japanese Valentine’s celebrations. The custom isn’t limited to romantic partners. In a practice known as giri choco (translated as “obligation chocolates”) women are expected to buy chocolates for the men in their lives on February 14, including their male coworkers. This gets as expensive and socially complicated as you might expect, and it has become so unpopular with women that many workplaces have banned giri choco altogether. If Japanese women are dreading Valentine’s Day, they can look forward to White Day on March 14, when men return the favor with gifts of their own.
3. In South Africa, women pin their Valentine's name to their sleeves.
People in South Africa literally wear their hearts on their sleeves on Valentine’s Day. It’s become a tradition for women there to write down the name of their lovers—or their secret crushes—and pin it to their shirt sleeves. It's believed the custom was inspired by Lupercalia, a rowdy ancient Roman fertility festival that also fell in mid-February.
4. Thousands of people get married on Valentine's Day in the Philippines.
Valentine’s Day is a popular wedding anniversary in the Philippines. Each year, in honor of the holiday, local governments host mass weddings for couples who may not be able to afford a more traditional wedding ceremony on their own. These events are usually presided over by local government officials. In 2019, the mayor of the City of Dasmariñas married around 500 couples at once.
5. In Wales, lovers traditionally gift each other symbolic spoons.
The Welsh version of Valentine’s Day is Dydd Santes Dwynwen, or Saint Dwynwen's Day, and is celebrated on January 25. The most distinct aspect of the holiday, which honors the Welsh patron saint of lovers, involves exchanging love spoons. These are exactly what they sound like: fancy wooden spoons carved with symbols representing the gifter's love. It's believed the tradition may have started with Welsh sailors courting prospective wives, and it’s still used as a romantic gesture in Wales today. Handcrafted love spoons can sell online for between $50 and $100.
6. Valentine's Day in Estonia is about friendship.
Valentine’s Day in the United States is all about couples, but in Estonia, singles aren’t left out. Their version of the holiday is called Friends Day, and friendship is treated as just as worthy a cause for celebration as romantic love. If they are looking for a love connection, single people can ride a special “love bus” that shuttles them around with other eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
7. El Salvador celebrates Valentine's Day with a loving twist on Secret Santa.
El Salvadorians celebrate Valentine’s Day with a game called “Secret Friend.” Anyone who’s participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange around Christmastime will recognize it. A group, such as a class of kids, writes everyone’s name on pieces of paper and draws slips. The name someone picks is the person they have to buy a gift for by Valentine’s Day. The tradition has a sentimental spin that sets it apart from Secret Santa, though: When it’s time to give their gift, the giver must say one kind thing about the recipient.