It was during the 19th century that Valentine’s Day started gaining popularity in the United States, when British settlers introduced it to North America. Since then, every 14th of February has turned into an annual festival of greeting cards and gift giving. While its origins cannot be attributed to a single theory alone, legends have it that the occasion commemorates the heroic and romantic deed of St. Valentine. The former priest secretly continued to perform marriages even after it has been outlawed in ancient Rome, thereby sending him to jail and eventually being sentenced to death. Before his last breath, however, St. Valentine wrote a letter signed “From Your Valentine” for a jailer’s daughter, whom he is said to have fallen in love with.
Generations later, Valentine’s Day has become a worldwide celebration of love. Romantic gestures involve fancy dinner dates, teddy bears and chocolates, bouquets of fresh roses, and heartfelt greeting cards, to name a few. How else is Valentine’s Day observed across Asia?
In the Lion City, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romance that coincides with the festivities for the Chinese New Year. February 14 has become a common date among young couples to tie the knot, believing that doing so would bring their marriage prosperity and good health. Single women, on the other hand, gather along the Singapore River at night to throw Mandarin oranges, in the hopes that this would lead them to their respective soulmates. Shopping malls, luxury hotels, and spas release holiday packages for weekend getaways. Couples spend the evening at fancy restaurants, while the youngsters stay at pubs until the wee hours of the morning. Weeklong music festivals and fashion shows likewise take place.
Every 14th of the month is a day of love in South Korea. In February, it has become customary for women to shower men with chocolates as a sign of affection. Convenience stores take advantage of the occasion by promoting assorted chocolates and chocolate candies on their glass windows. Come March 14, also known as White Day, the men who received gifts are expected to return the favour. The name originally meant that only white presents must be given but in recent times, the selection has expanded to dark chocolates and non-chocolate candies. April 14 is called Black Day, which is when singles congregate to indulge on jajangmyeon or black noodles with friends.
Similar to South Korean traditions, February 14 is when Japanese women gift their boyfriends and husbands with honmei choco or homemade chocolate, which should therefore be given only to the person one has feelings for. There is also giri choco, better known as obligation chocolate, which is given by women to their teachers, bosses, colleagues, and close friends. On March 14, the cycle reverses, and it becomes the turn of men to reciprocate the women’s efforts. In Japan, it is customary to give something in return after receiving a present. As early as January, groceries and department stores prepare for the upcoming celebrations by putting up large chocolate displays and stocking up on baking ingredients.
Valentine’s Day in the Philippines is an equally commercialised occasion as in any part of the world. This is the time of year when the prices of flowers and chocolates hike up—but people still buy anyway. February 14 has also become a fairly common anniversary date, especially with mass wedding ceremonies taking place in recent years. Imagine about a hundred couples gathering in malls or any other public space to say “I do” at once or even renew their wedding vows. In 2004, a local toothpaste brand organized a 10-second mass-kissing event attended by 5,347 couples, who all helped break the Guiness World Record previously held by Chile. The country lost the title to Hungary in 2005, but managed to reclaim it in 2008.
In Thailand, Valentine’s Day means couples taking on sports activities and outdoor adventures. The most common would be participating in an underwater wedding ceremony, as well as having enough courage to experience skydiving. Couples also make their way to Bang Rak, otherwise known as the Village of Love, to register their marriages and stand a chance at winning a gold-plated marriage certificate. Meanwhile, single women travel to the Trimurti shrine, where females of all ages offer flowers and light incense sticks. This ritual is believed to award them with a good husband. Exchanging gifts has likewise become a tradition in Thailand that even adults spend time and money for the celebrations.