The North American version of Valentine’s Day has become very commercial – chocolates, flowers, expensive cards. Many other countries have followed suit and are doing the same things. But there are love traditions around the world that have withstood the onslaught of Hallmark and Hershey’s.
One of the most romantic though relatively recent, is the love lock. We’ve seen these everywhere in the world but the widespread use of locks began in the 1980s in Pécs, Hungary, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Local young people began hanging padlocks on an iron fence linking the main square to the town’s medieval cathedral as a way of showing their commitment to one another.
The idea spread around the world. At Ponte Vecchio, a bridge in Florence, Italy, lovers added another step. According to legend, if you and your loved one attach a padlock to the famous bridge and then throw the key into the Arno River below, your love will last forever. Throwing away the key became a critical step in many parts of the world.
At the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, Germany, the water below must be filled with keys. But there is no river at Mount Huang, in Huangshan, China, one of China’s most famous, scenic spots. Instead, lovers hang a lock from the Lotus Peak’s chain fence, then seal their love by throwing the key into the abyss below.
In some cases, locks present a hazard as their weight can cause damage to bridge structures. In Paris, the government removed thousands of locks from the Pont Des Arts because they feared the extra weight would cause the collapse of the bridge. Moscow had a more creative approach. On the Luzhkov Bridge, a row of “love trees” or “padlock trees” were installed by the government to provide space for these love locks.
In both China and Taiwan, Valentine’s Day often falls during the lunar new year. Part of the celebrations include the Chinese Lantern festival. Thousands of lanterns are released into the sky, dispersing wishes for prosperity and good things, and perhaps for good luck in love, for the coming year.
The real Chinese valentine’s day is the Qi Xi which is usually in August. It celebrates the love story between Zhinü the weaver girl (the star Vega) and Niulang, the cowherd, whose star is Altair. Their love was forbidden and the pair were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way, never to meet. But once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a flock of magpies forms a bridge allowing the lovers to reunite for just one day. The story embodies the romance of Valentine’s Day story, and Qi Xi became the day to celebrate love.
In the Philippines, many young couples choose to marry on Valentine’s Day in a one huge gala event sponsored by the government. The venue, flowers, wedding cake, wedding banquet, cash and in-kind gifts, and in some areas, even the wedding rings, are free of charge to the couples and their families. The love birds must register in advance, then come dressed in their wedding finery.
A Loving Gift
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet.
And so are you
This familiar little poem appeared in a book of nursery rhymes published in the 18th century. Were they in early valentine cards too? Actually the earliest known first Valentine’s Day card was penned by Charles, Duke of Orleans, who sent love letters to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. He wrote: “Je suis desja d’amour tanné, Ma tres doulce Valentinée…” (I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine)
Today, Valentine’s Day cards remain a popular tradition in France and around the world. But in England, tradition dictated that the lovers actually created a card for their loved one. They might put a poem – romantic or even funny – in the card. Women might decorate the card with ribbons and lace.
Instead of going to a store (especially now during Covid), why not make a card for your loved one?
In Wales, the love spoon, literally a carved small wooden spoon is a romantic token but not on Feb 14. To celebrate Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on January 25th. 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 had different meanings: eg. horseshoes for good luck; wheels to mean support; and keys, to symbolize the keys to his heart.
The most popular item to give is, of course, chocolate! There are two types of chocolate gift-giving: Honmei-Choko, which means “true love chocolate,” and is only given to loved ones; and Giri-Choko, which means “obligation chocolate,” and is given to friends and colleagues as a token of appreciation.
To be truly Honmei many Japanese women will prepare the chocolate and the packaging of it personally and the colour red will be prominent in the decorations as well as the sweets. Giri-Choko can be reciprocated by the person to whom it is given. This usually happens on March 14, a month later, on White Day. The gift then is usually white – marshmallows, white chocolate, etc. trimmed in white.
You’ve heard the expression ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’. The practice comes from an ancient Roman celebration called Lupercalia. In South Africa and in parts of Italy, women pin the names of their love interest (either embroidered on cloth or on a piece of paper, on their sleeve.
The Food of Love
Food plays an important part in seduction. Think of the famous scene in the movie Tom Jones. Tom sits with Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) at a long table in a tavern. As they tear pieces of crab and hunks of meat, slurp oysters, and nibble on fruit and their mouths drip with juices. …. Serious gastro porn.
Food is a wonderful way to celebrate any holiday but for Valentine’s Day, planning and cooking a meal together makes it more special. Traditionally foods like oysters, prawns, chocolate, asparagus, figs and hot chillies are said to have aphrodisiac properties. The evidence is a little iffy but what the heck, give it a try.
How about a finger food dinner of shelled prawns spiced with chillies with a side of roasted asparagus?
Prawns with Chillies
A delicious sharing dish – no cutlery needed. Both Jamie Oliver and Sarah Cook of the BBC have created versions of this recipe. It goes particularly well with a white wine with just a hint of sweetness. Just prepare a couple of finger bowls of water with the lemon slices. Place the bowl of prawns in the middle of the table and tuck in.
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
1 red chilli pepper or 1/2 -1 tsp crushed dried chillies (depending on your heat tolerance)
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
12 large prawns – shell on
Juice of one lemon, a few slices from a second lemon
1/4 cup roughly chopped parsley
In a frying pan, melt butter and oil together and add garlic, chilli and paprika. Fry for a minute or two on medium heat until starting to turn golden. Turn up the heat and add the prawns, stirring as they fry until all the prawns have turned pink. Remove from heat and immediately toss with the lemon juice and the parsley.
Float lemon slices from the second lemon to a finger bowl of warm water. Place the pan of prawns and the finger bowl between you on the table and tuck in together.
A popular drink in South Africa, especially appropriate on Valentine’s Day, is the love latte or red latte, made with rooibos or red bush tea. Readily available everywhere these days, (it’s even packaged by Twinings), rooibos is a healthy, caffeine-free tisane.
Brew rooibos very, very strong, until the brew is dark red – a lovely sensual colour. Unlike regular tea, rooibos won’t get bitter as it brews. Then add a little honey, and pour on the steamed milk. You can use any type of milk, including almond, soy, almond, and seed milks. Finally, dust with cinnamon and serve.
However you celebrate this day, make it special by creating your own traditions.