Justine: Valentine’s Day Around the World

valentine's day traditionsAs much as I could have really used a guest blogger this week (hint: don’t volunteer to do both of your childrens’ Valentine’s Parties in the same year), I have none, so in lieu of an original post, I thought I’d share some of the more interesting traditions for Valentine’s Day around the world (courtesy todayifoundout.com). Perhaps some of these may inspire you in your own writing!

Wales: The Welsh celebrate ‘St. Dwynwen’s Day’ (the patron saint of lovers) on January 25th, which is their equivalent to Valentine’s Day. Legend goes that Dwynwen, daughter of King Brychan Brycheinog lived in Anglesey, in the 5th century and fell in love with a young man named Maelon. As all legendary love stories go, tragedy struck when the two were unable to be together (for reasons not entirely known, as the word of mouth story varies – some say she was raped by Maelon, while others state her father disapproved of the union and had her betrothed to someone else). Whatever the reasons, she was said to be distraught and fled into the woods where she encountered an angel who gave her a potion to cool her love for Maelon. The potion however, did more than just that, Maelon was turned into a solid block of ice. Further distraught by this icy addition to her problem, Dwynwen prayed and God (some versions say the angel) granted her 3 wishes. She is said to have wished for Maelon’s release from his icy tomb, secondly, that God watches over all true lovers and helps them realize their dreams and hopes or guides them through their sadness and love, and lastly, that she never marries. After being granted her wishes Dwynwen retreated to a life of dedication to the Church as a nun on the Island of Llanddwyn.

On this Welsh Valentine’s Day, it is customary to gift love-spoons, an age old tradition that got started when Welsh men (possibly originating among sailors), would carve intricately decorated spoons of wood and would present them to a lady that they were interested in courting or marrying. The designs they carved on the spoon handles were symbolic too. For example- Keys would signify a man’s heart, wheels his hard work and beads, his preferred number of offspring and so on. This tradition is carried on even today, as men gift their ladies spoons.

England: In the 1700′s, on the eve of Valentine’s day single women in England used to place/pin five bay leaves, one at each corner of their pillows and one in the center, with the belief that it would bring them dreams of their future husbands. Another variation of this tradition was to sprinkle bay leaves with rosewater and lay them across their pillows saying “Good Valentine, be kind to me, In dreams let me my true love see”. Now mostly considered folklore, this tradition is not widely practiced anymore but can still be seen once in a while.

Norfolk, England:
Along with traditional Valentine’s Day customs of cards and flowers and romance, the people of Norfolk in the East of England, have a Santa Clause of sorts that goes by the name ‘Jack Valentine’ and sometimes known as Old Father Valentine or even Old Mother Valentine.. This lovable but mysterious character is said to knock at little children’s doors on Valentine’s Eve and sneakily leaves them little treats and small presents. Although it isn’t quite known when or how this tradition got started, it’s still quite popular for generations of parents to continue what their parents had once done for them.

Denmark & Norway: Largely imported from the west ‘Valentinsdag’ as it is known or Valentine’s Day was not very widely celebrated here until more recently. However, they have still managed to come up with their very own quirky little tradition, that locals have embraced and made popular on this day. “Gaekkebrev” are funny little poems or rhyming love notes that men send to women anonymously on Valentine’s Day, giving them only a clue as to the number of letters in the senders name, represented by a dot for each letter. The recipient must then guess who sent her the card. If she guesses correctly she wins an Easter Egg on Easter later that year and if she’s stumped as to who her secret admirer was, she owes him an egg instead which is collected on Easter.

Japan: In this part of the World, it’s all about spoiling your man on Valentine’s day and not the other way around like in most Western cultures. Japanese women are usually said to be reserved and shy when it comes to expressing their affections with lovey-dovey gestures. However, on this day, the women are in the forefront presenting the men (and sometimes even female friends) in their lives gifts (mostly chocolates), to express either their love, courtesy or social obligation.

This custom of gifting chocolate in Japan on February 14th, was first introduced in 1936 by a Kobe-based confectioner ‘Morozoff Ltd.’, when it ran the first ever Valentine’s Day ad in Japan through a local English newspaper, with the intent of targeting foreigners that were used to celebrating the holiday of love. By the 1950′s other Japanese chocolate manufacturers joined in and started promotions to boost their chocolate sales on that day and a department store called ‘Isetan’, even started a “Valentine’s Sale” in 1958. In the 70′s a new promotion concept caught on… gifting different types of Valentine’s chocolates to express the nature of one’s relationship intent without the need for words.

The different types of chocolates signified different relationships- A woman may gift ‘giri-choko’ (義理チョコ) that literally translates to ‘obligation chocolate’, to men without any romantic interest (like bosses, colleagues, class-mates, brothers, fathers and close male friends). ‘Chō-giri choko’ is a step down from that and is referred to as “ultra-obligatory” chocolate. It is a cheaper chocolate reserved for people the woman isn’t even particularly fond of, but feels obligated to gift something to so they don’t feel left out, say an unpopular co-worker, for example. Then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s ‘honmei-choko’ (本命チョコ) meaning ‘favorite or true feeling chocolate’, that is specially gifted to boyfriends, lovers or husbands. For a show of extra love or interest, the ‘honmei-choko’ may be home-made by the women themselves and the receivers are deemed very lucky men. Lastly, a more recent type of chocolate has popped up ‘tomo-choko (友チョコ), ’tomo’ meaning “friend”, which is gifted to the woman’s female friends.

While on Valentine’s Day itself the men sit back and enjoy the treats presented to them by women, in the 1980′s the Japanese chocolate companies again came up with yet another successful campaign (and an obvious way to sell more chocolate) called ‘White Day’. Initially called “Ai ni Kotaeru White Day” meaning ‘Answer Love on White Day’, March 14th has since become the customary day for men to reciprocate their feelings to those who gave them chocolates on Valentine’s Day. They do so by presenting women with gifts (like lingerie, jewelry, clothing etc.) and chocolates that are at least two or three times more valuable (an unspoken rule) than the one’s they received from them on Valentine’s Day. The name ‘White Day’ is said to have been chosen because it signifies purity and has become the popular color of choice for the boxed chocolates and other confections gifted on that day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

13 thoughts on “Justine: Valentine’s Day Around the World

  1. I love V-day! I think it really symbolizes friendship as well as love, because kids in America exchange cheapy little cards with all their classmates — it’s very egalitarian, and if you give to one, you give to everyone.

    My kid goes to a very small school in Japan, and she took a bag full of the giri-choko and tomo-choko for all her schoolmates and teachers. (-: And when White Day rolls around, we’ll be simply awash in sweets when her friends and teachers return the favor.

    I just noticed a new trend in Japan this year (note: I noticed it this year, it may have been around longer) called gyaku-choko. Believe it or not, boys give chocolates to special girls on Valentine Day — and gyaku-choko means “reverse choko”! When I tell the kids in my classes about American boys generally not receiving chocolates, they say, “awwww!” in pity.

    Do kids still exchange cards and candy hearts? It really is a sweet custom.

    • Yes, although at least in our school, you need to tuck something in with the card (not necessarily candy hearts), whether it’s a lollipop, chocolate candy, a pencil (which is what I did this year), or something else. Some kids do little gift bags (more like what you’d see on Halloween), too.

      We’re also not allowed to label the cards individually anymore, so no one gets left out and no one gets special treatment. If there are 15 kids in the class, then you have fifteen blank envelopes. When my kids asked, “Who do I write it to?” –’cause the card has a line for “To:” and “From:”– I told them to write “To: You” and “From: [their name].” Of course, my younger son, being a tad obstinate, reversed it for nearly every card. *sigh*

      • I see one side of leaving the cards impersonal, on the other hand, I think it’s kinda a shame. I remember getting Valentines in grade school and there was something magical about seeing my name scrawled on it. By definition Valentines should be personal, yes?

        One year I got a big red heart that was covered in white lace (paper cut to look like lace pasted over the heart) with my name in the center in block letters. It had a note inside and a piece of chocolate taped next to it.

        I don’t think I’ve ever gotten another that meant so much. It made my seven year old heart swoon.

        • Yeah, I don’t know what to think about the impersonal cards. On the one hand, kids do select cards to fit the classmate — you wouldn’t send one of the buddy-buddy ones to a kid you didn’t like, for example. But, I do think it’s an important lesson — kids shouldn’t write anything rude, and if they do, it should be taken seriously by teachers and parents. I don’t think I ever gave or received a card with a rude message as a kid — you just didn’t do that. (-: And my class was kind of notorious for not being . . . cooperative and friendly. The cliques were kind of awful, but Valentine’s Day in elementary school was a kind of truce day.

          (-: Pencils are a nice gift! I think maybe 20 percent of the kids in my class included a lollipop or candy hearts in the card.

          What I remember is decorating the mailboxes! It was so fun to do, and so fun to get the “mail”.

          I think V-day and all those nostalgic feelings and remembering the strong emotions we felt as children can be really useful for writing. I can feel something churning away in the back of my brain, anyway, even though I don’t have words for it yet.

        • I would have been devastated as a child if we had to give impersonal cards. I used to spend weeks finding just the right thing to write inside each card for everyone in the class. I found something unique and nice to say to each person, even if the best I could do was “To the fifth grade boy who looks best in blue!” or some such. The trickiest thing was figuring out how to declare my love to whichever boy (or, honestly, sometimes boys plural) with whom I was currently infatuated, in such a way that it couldn’t be used as fodder for blackmail. 🙂

          I also used to hand craft something fun for everyone in class, mostly identical but with tiny indications of my regard on the ones for special boys. One year I made pom-pom critters (you can google that for pics if you aren’t a craft nut) and gave the boys who were special to me critters with little bow ties, while everyone else just got regular ones, white for girls and red for boys. That was too obvious- a few fist-fights broke out among the boys over the bow-tied critters. I don’t think it was so much that they cared who I liked, but you can’t give a couple kids something special and expect it not to be coveted. So, maybe the impersonal cards are the better choice. It still seems very sad, though.

        • It’s a little hard for four and five-year olds to get it right with the names. Frankly, after today’s party fiascos, it’s a lot easier to NOT have names on everything.

          I will also say that I’ve been on the butt-end of jokes around Valentine’s Day (I’m still traumatized from my 7th grade experience with Valentine’s Day — some not-so-nice girls playing a very mean trick on me), so I’m all in favor of the more egalitarian method for my kids.

        • Oh, yeah. I didn’t go to preschool, and I don’t remember doing the cards in first grade. I’m pretty sure we did them in second, third and fourth grade, though, and I know it wasn’t a thing in jr. high (7th grade for me). Personalization has to be age appropriate, and I think the teachers have to make it clear that it’s not an opportunity for bullying. I was fairly low on the social ladder, and was always somewhat amazed that no one was mean to me on Valentine’s Day. Genetic paranoia probably had a hand in that, too.

          I’d forgotten your boys were so young. That makes sense that they wouldn’t be personalizing the cards.

          I always enjoyed the dumb Valentine Day puns, too. “Lettuce be friends!” “Don’t you carrot all for me?” I saw some crazy Batman ones over at i09, I think it was, that were a little over the top. Stalker-esque, like a true dark hero of the pre-90s. Glad I’d never gotten one of those!

  2. It’s a huge industry here, but it’s really for lovers/couples. The shops are full of cards, the price of flowers goes through the roof, and all the restaurants split their tables into twos and offer Valentine’s menus (lots of pink – champagne, heart-shaped strawberry mousses, that kind of thing). It’s very commercial and manufactured – imagine having a romantic dinner for two in a restaurant full of other couples doing the exact same thing, with stressed-out waiting staff and cheesy themed menus.

    We tend to have a big celebration for our wedding anniversary at the beginning of Feb and another for my husband’s birthday next week, so we just slide over Valentine’s Day.

    • My husband was traveling today, and he didn’t remember anyway. Oh well! It sounds like you have some more personal things to celebrate in February, Jilly, than a manufactured holiday. I’d take yours over Valentine’s Day any day!

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: February is a Great Month for Stories! – Eight Ladies Writing

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