Valentine’s Day: mere commerce?

Posted on 5 min read

In Switzerland, Valentine’s Day is known as a day when people give their favourite person flowers, chocolates, champagne and so on, or spend a nice day together. Often, a bit a money is spent in the process. Too much, as some would say. But where does this custom originate from? And how do other cultures celebrate this day? Accompany us on a journey into the past – and to other continents.

Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day was first celebrated in 469 AD. The festival, proclaimed by Pope Gelasius, served to honour St. Valentine of Rome. He had illegally married soldiers in the 3rd century – even after his emperor Claudius II had explicitly forbidden him to do so again. As a result (and because of his devotion to the Christian religion) he was executed in 269 AD.

In the 5th century, however, Valentine’s Day was not yet understood as a celebration of love. This first happened in the 14th century at a time when courtly love was celebrated. Nevertheless, it took until the 18th century for lovers in England to give each other love letters – so-called “Valentines” –, chocolate and flowers. Finally, in the middle of the 19th century, the first mass production of Valentine’s Day cards followed in the USA.

Valentine’s Day serves to honour St Valentine of Rome, the patron saint of love and happy marriage.

Two legends infer the connection of Valentine’s Day with our use of it today: according to one legend, Valentine signed a letter to the daughter of his warden in prison with “Your Valentine”. Another legend says that Valentine gave flowers from his own garden to the newlyweds he had married.

Although Valentine’s Day is not a public holiday in Switzerland, it is still considered a feast day in the Lutheran and Roman churches due to its association with St. Valentine.

How is Valentine’s Day celebrated in other cultures?

Valentine’s Day is universally associated with love around the world. From love locks in Italy to wooden “love spoons” in Wales to “San Trifon Zartan”, the “Day of the Winemaker”, in Bulgaria, where lovers toast their love with regional wine.

Nevertheless, there are minor to major differences from country to country. Here we would like to introduce you to a few customs.

Valentine’s Day in Japan

Valentine’s Day found its way to Japan via the USA and has been celebrated since the 1930s. What was initially aimed at resident foreigners has over the years become more and more popular among the Japanese population. Thus, the day has been celebrated annually since the 1970s.

Today, there are three types of chocolate in Japan that are given as Valentine’s Day gifts:

  • honmei choko (本命チョコ, “favourite chocolate”): is given to the (male) sweetheart or crush as a token of love. It is often homemade and elaborately decorated.
  • tomo choko (友チョコ, “friendship chocolate”): given to close friends. This can also be biscuits and other sweets.
  • giri choko (義理チョコ, “compulsory chocolate”): is given to employees, superiors and acquaintances.

Here‘s a recipe for honmei choko.

Interestingly, one month later, on White Day on 14 March, men are supposed to give women a counter-gift of white chocolate. Today, however, it is also increasingly common for men to reciprocate with gyaku choko (逆チョコ, “counter chocolate”) directly on 14 February.

Psst: if you don’t want to make them yourself, you can also buy Valentine’s Day chocolates here.

Valentine’s Day in Brazil

As Valentine’s Day takes place at the time of the big carnival in Brazil, it does not receive much recognition. Instead, Brazilians celebrate the “Dia dos Namorados” (“Lovers’ Day”) on 12 June. Here, too, flowers, chocolates and cards are exchanged.

It is not St. Valentine who is honoured on the Dia dos Namorados, however, but Anthony of Padua. (His official day of remembrance is one day later, on 13 June.) The latter is known, among other things, for his support of lovers and is therefore considered the patron saint of weddings and matchmaking.

Valentine’s Day in Greece

The Greeks also do not celebrate Valentine’s Day per se. However, they do commemorate love through the veneration of saints.

On the one hand, they go to church on 3 July to commemorate Hyacinth of Caesarea (also known as Agios Yakinthos), the patron saint of lovers. His fate is similar to that of St. Valentine, who died because of his Christian devotion.

On the other hand, on 13 February they honour the holy couple Priscilla and Aquila. The two wandered with St. Paul and are considered patron saints of love and marriage, among other things.

Valentine’s Day in the Philippines

Speaking of marriage: the Philippines use Valentine’s Day as an occasion to hold mass weddings. Up to several thousand people get married together. On this day, flowers – and occasionally rings – are exchanged. The costs are covered by the government.

Valentine’s Day in Denmark

Since the 1990s, people in Denmark have been giving each other snowdrops and sweets for Valentine’s Day. The men often write a poem for the women. The special thing about those is that the “joke letter” (“Gaekkebrev“), which often takes the form of a cut-out, does not have a sender. In its place, dots are deposited for each letter of the author’s name. If the woman guesses the sender, she traditionally receives a kiss from him.

Make your own Gaekkebrev: How to make a “gækkebrev”!

Valentine’s Day in Africa

In Ghana, Valentine’s Day is called “Chocolate Day”. However, it is not for the lovers, but to boost the economy. Ghana is one of the biggest exporters of cocoa (read more about fair cocoa farming in Ghana here (German source). Nevertheless, (musical) events take place on this day; in restaurants you can often find special themed menus.

The day is a little more romantic in South Africa. Here, people celebrate Valentine’s Day by wearing white and red clothes. These signify purity and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a lot of consumption on Valentine’s Day. In Ghana, the day is officially about promoting the economy. But the bottom line is that it’s about spending time with your favourite people, if that’s what you want. It’s up to each person to decide how much – and if any – money will flow.

How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Is it just another day of the year for you, or do you take some time for romantic indulgences? Let us know in the comments!

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