by Karin Ling
Just as you’re thinking about how Valentine’s Day back home has declined into the formulaic, you find out that the holiday has gone international. It’s easy to see why a day of romance is such an attractive concept, but just how celebrations play out around the world is surprising. As you may know, the Japanese have designated Valentine’s Day to celebrate men, White Day for women including giri-choko, “obligation chocolate” for co-workers and honmei-chocko, chocolate for that special someone. From unabashed consumerism to right-wing protests, from the predictable to the passionate, we see it all on this tour around the world. It just may have you rethinking what was once upon a time, just a simple “Hallmark Holiday.”
Most Party Hardy
When it comes to celebrating love, no one tops Korea. After South Korea adopted White Day from the Japanese, they came up with “Black Day” one month later on April 14th. On this day, single people get together and eat Jajang Noodles (noodles with black bean sauce). And the marketing forces kept on going to ensure a reason to love and spend on the 14th of every month. Lonely singles who miss out on Black Day could meet up for curry on May 14 (“Yellow Day”). Those in relationships would skip the curry and head to the florist to celebrate “Rose Day.” Meanwhile, keep your wallets on hand for “Green Day,” “Diary Day,” “Kiss Day,” “Silver Day”…
In Ghana, Valentine’s Day has been great for business and as a chance to open up communication on often taboo topics of affection and sex. This year, the tourism industry and cocoa supplies successfully pushed the renaming of Valentine’s Day to “National Chocolate Day.” Though Ghana is one of the world’s top cocoa producers, chocolate is not as popular locally as it is abroad. The hope is that “National Chocolate Day” will clue locals in to the best way to say “I love you.”
The move, however, has brought unwanted attention back on the issues of child labor on cocoa plantations. While on the subject, international activists are also discouraging gifts of flowers (imported flowers are packed with toxic pesticides) and gold jewelry (gold mining is filthy for the environment). If you thought finding a way to show your partner you cared was hard, now you have to do it while showing a bit of love to exploited children, the environment, not to speak of the forests knocked down for making those Valentine’s cards…
For those who despise the exclusionist traditions of Valentine’s Day, take comfort in its variations. On Feb 14, the Finnish celebrate Ystävänpäivä, meaning “Friends Day.” (The unusual translation may have something to do with the fact that the holiday didn’t enter the Finnish almanac until 1987).
In Mexico and Colombia, Dia del amor y la amistad is “Love and Friendship Day.” Colombians celebrate the holiday on the third Friday and Saturday in September and even have a secret gift giving tradition similar to our “Secret Santa.” How’s that for democratic gift giving?
In Thailand, Valentine’s Day was imported as another excuse to party. Meanwhile this holiday has made Bangrak (“District of Love”) the place to be for couples making a commitment. On this day, the local district office records the country’s highest concentration of couples registering their marriage. Those who choose to commit themselves at this time get to do it at the ultimate wedding street party.
Before the Italian city, Turin, played the Olympic host, it hosted a long-standing tradition as the city where couples announced their engagement on February 14th. A few days leading up to the big day, stores are decked out in encouragement. Do think carefully about the status of your relationship when you time that next visit to Turin…
In Brazil, the day for exchanging tokens of love is on Jun. 12, Dia dos Namorados. This “Day of the Enamored” is conveniently the day before Saint Anthony’s Day for the Saint known as the matchmaking saint. On his day, hopeful girls engage in all sorts of rituals for finding a partner.
One popular tactic is for the girl to fill her mouth with water and hold it until she hears the name of a boy mentioned. This is Saint Anthony telling her future husband’s name. Another ritual is for the woman to buy a statue of the Saint and place or bury him upside down for a week as blackmail. She will only agree to put him upright again after he’s found her a good man.
In India, Valentine’s Day has spawned the phenomenon of “eve teasing.” Boys pretending to be Romeo of their own Bollywood musical attempt to woo the girls of their dreams on the streets. More often than not though, when feelings are not reciprocated, the romantic gesture dissolves into plain harassment that has girls afraid to leave their homes.
Valentine’s Day arouses another form of passion in protest groups ranging from religious activists to right wingers. The main argument is against the onslaught of sexual thirst and rampant consumerism that insult their culture. India, the same culture that brought you the Kama Sutra, lost its sexual spark sometime in the Middle Ages and today still forbids the on-screen kiss. In recent years, protesters have demonstrated at hotel balls, raided gift shops, and burned Valentine’s Day cards. In major cities, the police are on alert to ensure that this day of love and tenderness passes peacefully.
In Iran, Valentine’s Day comes three days after National Day, celebrating the Victory of the Islamic Revolution. This revolution that brought the Mullahs to power forced women to wear veils and decreased contact between males and females.
In years past, the regime has banned Valentine’s Day and put the Office of Vice and Virtue out on patrol. Morality police warned restaurants and gift shops not to cater to young couples suspected of celebrating romance. The threats have done little to diminish the popularity of the holiday, mainly because the nature of the culture is changing. Half the Iranian population is under 25 and young people seek a more open society than the one imposed on their parents by the revolution. Supporters of the holiday point out that Persian culture has a rich history of romantic legends and the current restrictions themselves are what is unnatural. The youngest generation of Iranians are using this occasion and others to stand up for themselves and as any visitor to Tehran on Valentine’s Day can contest, the city sings with a youthful vibrancy and the winds of transition in progress.
If this tour of Valentine’s has taught us anything, it’s that a simple celebration of love is really anything but simple. Nowadays, the cultures that have imported the holidays have imported other values with it: westernization, modernization and the reliance on objects to prove one’s sentiments. At worse, the big day is a promotion of child slave labor but at its most inspiring it’s a stance against oppression. That’s something to think about when you stand dumbfounded before the local shop’s Valentine’s aisle, making sense of what it all really means. Who knew that somewhere out there, paper hearts and red teddy bears could be such a force to be reckoned with?