Ten Out-of-the-Ordinary Valentine’s Day Customs

From the festivals of ancient Rome to modern campaigns, the holiday hasn’t always been about roses and candy

Admirers present valentines to a girl who is pretending to be sleeping, c. 1900s. In the 18th and 19th centuries, British children celebrated Valentine's Day by going door to door, singing songs. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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8. Role Reversal: After an executive at the Mary Chocolate Company introduced Valentine’s Day to Japan in 1957, an error in translation led Japanese marketers to believe that tradition called for women to send chocolate candies to men. Now, “Many Japanese consider Valentine’s Day the one occasion in which women are allowed the greatest amount of personal expression,” writes Millie Creighton, an associate professor in the department of anthropology and sociology at the University of British Columbia. “A high-ranking official at one department store asserts, ‘This is the only day girls can express their feelings very openly.’ ”

9. On the March: Every year since 2003, the human rights group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) has held peaceful demonstrations on Valentine’s Day, demanding access to education, health care and an end to government oppression of activists. Dressing in red and white outfits, they distribute paper roses and cards with messages such as, “Defend your right to love and let love overcome hate. Defend all your rights and stand up for the truth.” Several prominent WOZA activists have been arrested during these Valentine’s Day protests—including Magodonga Mahlangu, who later received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on November 23, 2009.

10. To Your Health: In recent years, Valentine’s Day has emerged as an occasion for public health education. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control seek to raise awareness about heart disease, with e-cards that read: “Valentine, dear Valentine, My heart beats just for you. To keep our hearts beating, Let’s walk a mile or two.” (Hey, they’re doctors, not poets.)

Worldwide, the holiday also has become an occasion for holding AIDS prevention workshops. “Valentine’s Day offers more opportunity [for AIDS education] than any other day,” writes columnist Joseph Adeyeye of Nigeria, where 2.6 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, the second largest number in any country in the world. “It is the period when teenagers, especially, come under the greatest form of pressure to undertake risky sexual behaviors.”

Perhaps inevitably, pharmaceutical companies also caught on. In 2000, Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, funded a Valentine’s Day impotence awareness campaign in Britain.


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