For many of us, it's difficult to imagine life in the United States without certain holidays, and that includes Valentine's Day. Like Christmas and the 4th of July, Valentine's Day -- and all the hearts, flowers, and chocolates that come with it -- is an indispensable part of American culture.
But did you know there are countries where celebrating Valentine's Day is banned? While the majority of anti-Valentine's countries are Muslim, not all anti-Valentine's countries have banned the holiday for religious reasons.
Is Valentine's Day really as important as Americans think it is, and why would another country forbid it? Let's take a closer look at why Valentine's Day is celebrated and what it means in other parts of the world.
Why Is Valentine's Day Celebrated?
Valentine's Day originated as a Christian holiday in the first century A.D. The history of Valentine's Day is a bit murky, but is likely linked to the execution of a Christian cleric in Rome around 270 AD. The cleric, named Valentine, continued to marry couples despite a ban on marriage and engagements by emperor Claudius the Cruel. Claudius needed a steady supply of soldiers for his army, and believed banning marriage would bring in more recruits.
As the legend of Valentine and his sacrifice grew, he became recognized as a Christian martyr. In AD 496, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 the day of the Feast of St. Valentine, which over time became known as Valentine's Day. By the Middle Ages when the concept of courtly love was popular, Valentine's Day became associated with the ideals of romance and devotion.
Today, Valentine's Day continues to be celebrated in many countries where Christianity is a dominant religion, including the United States and many countries in Europe.
How Do Different Cultures Celebrate Valentine's Day?
Each country that celebrates Valentine's Day has its own unique traditions. While in the US flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped everything are all the rage, the holiday looks quite different in other cultures.
- Denmark. The Danes only recently began to celebrate Valentine's Day, but have since made the holiday distinctly their own. Folks in Denmark exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops, and write what's called a gaekkebrev. This romantic and humorous note is signed with 3 mysterious dots, leaving the recipient to guess who the sender is.
- Mexico. In Mexico, Valentine's Day is called El Día del Amor y la Amistad, which means The Day of Love and Friendship. As the name implies, Mexicans celebrate all close relationships on this day, not just romantic ones. Don't be surprised if you see huge bunches of balloons and plenty of PDA in Mexico, where public displays of love are an accepted part of the culture.
- The Philippines. Valentine's Day is an epic romantic event in the Philippines, where the government sponsors a mass wedding day for couples who want to get married. People here put their money where their mouth on Valentine's Day, not just pledging their love, but making it legally binding.
- Wales. Valentine's Day in Wales, known as St. Dwynwen's Day, celebrates a female saint named Santes Dwynwen and falls on the 25th of January. Instead of flowers and candy, men give their beloved spoons as tokens of love and desire. And not just any spoons. In true Welsh tradition, these are hand-carved wooden spoons etched with symbols or personalized engravings, and are keepsakes that can stay in a family for generations.
- South Korea. Those who love Valentine's Day may want to spend some time in South Korea, where love is celebrated on the 14th of every month, all year round. Each monthly holiday has its own unique theme. For example, couples head to the countryside for Green Day in August, while they express their feelings for each other on Confession Day in September.
In Which Countries Is Valentine's Day Banned?
Valentine's Day may seem like an innocuous holiday that celebrates love and family bonds, but in many countries it goes against religious teachings or cultural traditions. These are the countries where Valentine's Day is not just frowned upon, but is illegal.
- Malaysia. 61% of the population in Malaysia is Muslim, and subject to strict Islamic rule. In 2005 a fatwa was created banning the celebration of Valentine's Day. 80 Malaysian couples were arrested for violating the religious edict, which also resulted in raids at hotels and anti-Valentine's Day protests. Also discouraged in Malaysia are the use of emojis and perfume, which are considered inappropriately romantic.
- Indonesia. In recent years, Indonesia has been subject to numerous protests against the celebration of Valentine's Day. Protesters in this predominantly Muslim country say that the holiday promotes the use of alcohol and sex before marriage, both of which are forbidden under Islamic law.
- India. Socially conservative India is not a hospitable place to celebrate Valentine's Day. Many people consider Valentine's Day to be a symbol of a Western culture, which is often more permissive than Indian culture. India has even seen protests with the burnings of Valentine's Day images, including hearts and pictures of couples.
- Saudi Arabia. Displays of love and affection are not permitted in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country. Five men were sentenced to decades in prison and lashes with a cane when they were discovered dancing with women they were not married to on Valentine's Day. Though some symbols of love such as hearts and flowers are permitted on other days, they are forbidden on February 14, when no Saudi citizen is allowed to wear the color red.
- Iran. If you love to celebrate Valentine's Day, avoid Iran around February 14. Considered a decadent Western custom by Iran's leaders, Valentine's Day is often celebrated in secret in this majority Muslim country. Though shop owners and restaurateurs have been threatened with prosecution for catering to people celebrating Valentine's Day, some defy the ban and use lookouts to warn of the appearance of the police.
- Pakistan. Pakistan's High Court officially banned Valentine's Day in 2018. Before it was banned, students at universities in two Pakistani cities descended into violence over their beliefs about Valentine's Day and Islam. Shots were fired, rocks were thrown, and several students were injured. Because of the actions of the High Court, Valentine's Day is now forbidden country-wide.
Did You Know? In some countries, Valentine's Day isn't a holiday for lovers, but for friends. If you're single and tired of feeling left out on February 14th, head over to Finland or Estonia, where they celebrate Friend's Day! This platonic holiday didn't reach Estonia until the late 1980s, but is now a day to exchange typical Valentine's gifts with friends and family.