Valentine’s Day traditions in the Netherlands and around the world
Many know Valentine’s Day as a trend that flew over from the US, which mainly involves exchanging cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts with your partner, or perhaps approaching your secret crush and finally making your feelings known to them.
While this is generally spot-on, as the modern Valentine’s Day tradition is quite young, many countries have managed to make the day their own by adding little personal touches and following existing traditions from their own cultures. Here’s a quick dive into the origins of this romantic holiday and an overview of some of the different ways it is celebrated around the world.
A brief history of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day, like so many modern European traditions and holidays, is a blending of both pagan and Christian traditions - in this case, the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, and the Christian feast day of Saint Valentine.
Lupercalia was a Roman fertility festival held to mark the coming of spring and to honour the god of Agriculture, Faunus. 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 As so often was the case with once popular pagan customs, it seems that it was superseded by a Christian feast day in an effort to “Christianise” the mid-February celebrations.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 centuries 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 the Netherlands - 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 the Netherlands and around the world
Looking to show your special someone you care, or just curious how the day is marked around the world? Here’s how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the Netherlands and in other countries.
Valentine’s Day in the Netherlands
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 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.
Over the past few years, however, the holiday has seen its popularity grow and it has become a day that is celebrated (in both big and small ways) by couples across the country.
Valentine’s day traditions in Japan
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is a beloved tradition with its own interpretation. On February 14, women give chocolates to the men - 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. White Day is celebrated in various Asian countries, but it originates from Japan, and was started by a confectionery company in the hopes to elevate their (white) marshmallow sales.
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.
Valentine’s traditions in Taiwan
In Taiwan, it’s mainly the men who do the gift-giving. What's unique about it is the tradition of presenting one’s loved one 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.
Valentine’s Day is not very popular in Germany, but they have some unique ways of showing their affection on this day. For instance, the giving of pig depictions (a symbol of luck) or heart-shaped ginger cookies are recurring themes.
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.
Valentine’s Day alternative: National Lover’s Day
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!