Some people say there isn’t enough love to make the world go round. But we beg to differ. The annual commercial frenzy that’s commonly known as St. Valentine’s Day dominates the advertising schedules and promotional campaigns in many countries. So, we thought we’d get right back to the basics with a sentimental look at the different ways that love is celebrated around the world. You might be surprised by what you learn.
St. Valentine’s Day - how it all began.
The most widely known of all the romantic feasts, this is actually a more recent phenomenon than you might expect. While its roots go back many hundreds of years, what we have come to know as Valentine’s Day is a much more recent invention. But, while this most famous day gets most of the attention, every country around the world has its unique way of celebrating love. So, we thought we’d take a look at a half dozen of the most distinctive traditions from around the world that you might never have heard of:
Love makes the world go round
Love is universal, but it’s celebrated differently wherever you are. Luckily there are still some sweet, romantic customs left to celebrate it with the innocence and romance that it deserves. We’ve done a little digging to see exactly how love is celebrated around our small planet. From London to New York, from Barcelona to Paris and from Copenhagen to Tokyo, Cupid’s going to be very busy this year.
How it all began…
St. Valentine’s Day is the Daddy of all the days dedicated to the celebration of love. Originally a Christian feast day honoring a martyr called St. Valentine, his story became the basis of many of the folk traditions that we are all now very familiar with. It’s now the most widely-celebrated day of love in the world. But let’s wind back to the very beginning of this ancient custom and see where it all began…
The most common story involves the martyrdom of a man called Valentine who was imprisoned by the Romans in the 4th century BC for ministering to Christians. In those days, that was a very dangerous thing to do, since any Christian sympathisers were at risk of severe religious persecution from the Roman empire.
Legend tells us that Valentine was one of those imprisoned and while he was detained, he managed to deliver a miracle. He had fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter. She had been blind for years. And through the power of his faith, he managed to restore her sight. An uplifting story, but what does that have to do with love, you might ask? Well, according to an 18th century embellishment to the legend, before he was executed, he wrote his love a letter and he signed it: “Your Valentine ''. This was his last farewell.
Many years later, once he had been elevated to Sainthood, Valentine, like all other Saints, needed a Saint’s Day. So, in AD 496, Pope Gelasius 1 decreed that 14th January would be that day.
The United Kingdom: Jack Valentine’s up to his old tricks!
It was to be another 1400 years before this date reached its legendary status as a day of love. Fast forward to a time when courtly love flourished and romance was in fashion in a big way. By the middle of the 18th century, the English had taken it to the next level. They started a new tradition where couples were encouraged to express their love for each other by presenting flowers, sweet treats and even sending greetings cards.
While the new tradition was born in England, it has many local variants across the UK including a character called Jack Valentine from Norfolk, who knocks on the back doors of houses leaving sweets and presents for the children.
These days, much of the romance has been squeezed out of Valentine’s day itself. It has become a more commercial holiday and in many Anglo countries, its true purpose is forgotten, overwhelmed by a deluge of Valentine’s Day deals, special offers, 2 for 1 romantic dinners and themed boxes of chocolates.
Try London’s most romantic table: Le Pont de la Tour
If you want to experience the true feeling of romance, you and your loved one could do worse than settle into this sexy little restaurant with one of the most magical views in all of Britain. Le Pont de la Tour is a special place. Spread out in front of you is the twinkling necklace of the River Thames with its parade of pleasure boats drifting slowly past. In front of you lies the thrusting skyline of the City of London with its bright lights and modern skyscrapers. But the starring role here is played by Tower Bridge, all lit up in its impossible Disneyland glory right in front of your eyes. If there’s a better view of a bridge in the world, please let us know. Plus, this stunning little French restaurant with its sprawling terrace, classic table settings and tinkling piano is the perfect place to express your love. Classic romance, gorgeous food and a beautiful view. What’s not to fall in love with?
Barcelona, Spain: books, roses and dragons
In Barcelona, they do things differently. They always have. While love is still celebrated on Valentine’s Day here (just like it is in the rest of the world), most people in Barcelona wait for the Fiesta de St, Jordi. This is Catalunya’s unique and special celebration of love and romance. It all started, many centuries ago, with a man called George.
He’s actually Turkish. And he’s a busy man, since he’s also the patron saint of England and the Republic of Georgia. At some time in the 15th century, he became the patron saint of Catalunya.
It began with a dragon, who was terrorising the people of a small town. The town had a princess and St. Jordi was called to rescue her. As you would expect, the dragon was slayed by the brave knight, safety was restored to the village and the legend of St. Jordi was born.
These days, the dragons have been tamed and now the citizens of Barcelona celebrate love with a charming, giant street party. Tens of thousands of people throng the avenues to celebrate romance, Barcelona style.
Tradition dictates that on this day, love is expressed in the form of the gift of a book for the men and a rose for the women. This charming tradition is uniquely Catalan and the sight of romantic couples walking hand in hand clutching gifts from their loved ones, truly warms the soul. The locals even dress up some of their famous buildings to celebrate the occasion with giant bows and red roses. The streets are packed with hundreds of stalls selling books or flowers. The Catalan flag is proudly displayed on every corner and the center of town is packed with people, food stalls and bands playing Catalan music. It is a charming fiesta and, so far, it’s managed to stay true to itself.
Barcelona’s most romantic table: La Torre de Alta Mar
For the most romantic views of this beautiful city, get yourself a table on top of the Torre de Alta Mar. Nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and Barcelona’s Montjuic mountain, this 250 foot high restaurant delivers exquisite 360 degree views of Barcelona. Look to your East and you’ll see the Mediterranean stretching out in front with nothing between you and the Balearic islands 200 km away. To your South, there’s the dark, looming shadow of Montjuic with its impressive castle walls looking down on the city lights..
As your gaze sweeps on, you’ll see the whole of Barcelona laid out in front of you from the fairytale monastery on top of Mt. Tibidabo to the classic grid of the Eixample district (recently voted the best residential neighbourhood in the world. In the distance, you’ll see the lights of the Sagrada Familia before dragging your eyes back to the beaches below you. This is the perfect place for watching the fireworks (at eye level). And its classically refined interior, haute cuisine menu and excellent wine selection will make this an occasion you will never forget. In Barcelona, love is (literally) in the air.
Paris, France: the city of lights
For many people around the world, France is the country that symbolises love. Paris embodies romance, and it’s no surprise that the French take their loving seriously. In fact, the first ever Valentine’s Day card was a French invention. So the story goes, way back in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orleans sent his wife love letters from his prison cell in the Tower of London. That is believed to be the first modern interpretation of this ancient tradition, and it has remained a part of French folklore ever since.
But here’s a twist. The French also have their own special traditions to celebrate this most romantic of days. Known as the “loterie d’amour”, this very French tradition involved men and women filling houses opposite each other. One by one, each of them take turns to call out a name to pair up with. If the men didn’t like their match, they could simply swap one woman for another.
And then afterwards, the unmatched women gathered around a bonfire either to commiserate or to celebrate a lucky escape. But, as Shakespeare said: “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. So, the jilted women would gather around the flames, hurling abuse and insults. As you can imagine, this occasionally got a bit out of hand and eventually the French Government had to put a stop to it altogether
Paris’ most romantic table: La Tour d’Argent
Paris is the city of love, so if you’re thinking of dialling up the romance, there could be nowhere better than a romantic dinner for two at its oldest restaurant. La Tour d’Argent is not cheap, but it comes with a rich history and pedigree. It first served food way back in 1582 and (apparently) it was a favorite of English King Henry 1v. Since then it has hosted many other members of royalty and celebrities worldwide.
This place just reeks of atmosphere and these days, it’s more famous for its food than for its former clients. Giant langoustine with kumquat and lightly scented coffee foam, anyone? Or do you prefer something more traditional like duck with cherry sauce and broad bean flan? This is a meal that you will remember for the rest of your life.
USA: Falling in love again
North Americans have been celebrating Valentine’s Day since around 1860, but whereas in most countries it remains a celebration of romantic love, in the US it’s become a wider, more general celebration. Americans like to share their emotions, so it’s not surprising in this free-thinking country, that the traditions have evolved and broadened into something that is now much more inclusive. In the USA, on Valentine’s Day, everybody gets a chance to express their love.
In fact, it’s quite a big deal in schools. Traditionally, kids make special boxes, into which they place a small Valentine’s Day card for the class. These cards are shared around so that everyone feels the love. And even the teacher doesn’t miss out. In fact, teachers are often invited to special Valentine's Day parties where heart shaped cookies are swapped for red velvet cake and “conversation hearts” are passed out with secret messages such as: “Kiss me!”, “Be my lover” and “Secret admirer”.
As for the adults, they exchange cards not only with their lovers but also with their family and friends. This is different to many of the Valentine’s traditions around the world. And in the USA, even our furry friends aren’t left out of this annual love fest. Surveys show that around 21% of Americans give Valentine’s Day cards to their pets. Who’d have thought?
Finally, we return to the original purpose of this day - to celebrate love and romance. American lovers (in the traditional sense) still flatter each other with traditional Valentine’s Day gifts such as flowers, red roses and jewellery. And for those who like their romance to be more of an occasion than a gift, the restaurants are bound to be packed with pink cheeked lovers, sipping red wine and gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, whispering sweet nothings over the table. So, if you’re one of those, then choose wisely and book fast - all the best tables will be sold out in advance.
New York’s most romantic table: The River Cafe
The River Cafe, New York could be one of the most romantic urban restaurants in the world. Just under the Brooklyn Bridge, in the trendy Bohemian warehouse district known as DUMBO, lies this discrete gem of a restaurant. Inside, the vibe is all romance. Fresh flowers brighten up the dining rooms, sexy piano music complements the noise of happy diners. The food is American and Michelin-starred. But the real attraction here is the view. Spread out in front of you is a view you’ve seen a million times. The Manhattan skyline sparkles and twinkles across the river like a million diamonds pulsing with energy from one of the world’s most vibrant and busy cities. But from your table at the River Cafe, it feels like you’re a million miles away, watching a movie you’ve seen time and time before. One that you’ll never get tired of. As they say at the River Cafe: Across a bridge, over a river and into a dream. Romance is not dead.
Copenhagen, Denmark: jokes and snowdrops
In Denmark, there are several distinct traditions surrounding this most romantic of days. Inspired by nature and the natural rhythm of Spring, in Denmark, they’ve ditched the roses in favour of beautiful white pressed snowdrops. Here, there is also a variation of a wider theme of anonymity. People send each other joke letters, signed with dots. Known as gaekkebrev, the idea is that the recipient has to guess the identity of their admirer. For those who guess correctly, a surprise will come their way in the spring in the form of a chocolate Easter egg.
Copenhagen’s most romantic table: Mielcke and Hurtigkarl
If you can get a reservation at Copenhagen’s famously romantic Mielcke and Hurtigkarl restaurant, we highly recommend it. Especially if you’re in the mood for love. Set in one of Denmark’s most iconic locations, right bang in the center of the world famous Royal Danish Horticultural Garden, people have been falling in love with this location since 1830. This is an elegant, simple place with a minimalist vibe that allows the gardens that surround you remain the star of the show. This stunning place brings the outside in. The walls are dressed with artworks from some of Denmark’s most creative and talented artists of the last decade. Plus, with a stunning menu and extraordinary food, if this place doesn’t get you in the mood for love, nothing will.
Tokyo, Japan: chocolates, puffer fish and views of Mount Fuji
In Japan, the tables are turned. February 14th is a day where men are pampered and spoiled by their loved ones. Here, it all centers around chocolate and this even extends to male friends, bosses and work colleagues. And depending on the type of relationship you’re in, you can expect a different kind of chocolate. If you’re more friends than lovers, you’ll probably be given some “giri choco”, otherwise known as “obligatory chocolate”, which is deemed appropriate for platonic relationships.
On the other hand, for the red-hot lovers out there, you can look forward to some “honmei choco”, loosely translated as “true love chocolate”. You’ll probably get a handmade gift as well, to seal the deal. And this celebration of love is not just for men – women have their own day one month later on March 14th.
Tokyo’s most romantic table: Kozue
Kozue sits high up in the clouds atop one of Tokyo’s tallest skyscrapers and it has a view you’re bound to fall in love with. This unrivalled setting offers an extraordinary panorama from the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel. Its floor-to-ceiling windows invite you to gaze out on the city below with its twinkling lights stretching out into the distance over towards the horizon of the Western hills. If you’re lucky enough (and the weather’s in your favor) you might even catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the distance. With a stylish, minimalist interior, and its clean and contemporary looks, you’re encouraged here to focus on the food and the views. Treat your loved one to a romantic meal here with everything from Puffer Fish to Wagyu beef on the menu. Despite its 30 year history, the style of this restaurant still holds its own almost 30 years later. This is definitely a place for romance, Tokyo style.