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World: From Dushanbe To Sofia, Love Is A Universal Language On Valentine's Day

  • Jeremy Bransten

Today is Valentine's Day, the day of lovers. The holiday has been celebrated for centuries in some countries of Europe, where it has ancient roots. But Valentine's Day is quickly becoming a worldwide phenomenon as well. From Dushanbe to Sofia, gentlemen who fail to get bouquets for their sweethearts do so at their own peril. In Tehran, however, buying red roses could get you into trouble.

Prague, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In case you'd forgotten or are out of touch with modern trends, today is Valentine's Day, the holiday for all those who are in love. There's probably still time to buy flowers, and if you're a man living anywhere between Paris and Dushanbe, chances are your "significant other" is expecting a bouquet.

American country music singer Willie Nelson implores, "Valentine, won't you be my Valentine and introduce your heart to mine, and be my Valentine..."

Until just a few years ago, Valentine's Day was largely unknown in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. But the holiday has caught on rapidly. Among young people, it is supplanting the traditional 8 March Women's Day. Of course, there is a heavy dose of commercialism mixed in, with retailers urging shoppers to buy that perfect gift and manufacturers churning out everything from heart-shaped candies to elaborate jewelry for the occasion.

But the appeal of Valentine's Day is that it celebrates love, a universal value. And as Yuliya Yashchenko, deputy editor in chief of "Cosmopolitan" magazine's Russian edition, told RFE/RL from Moscow, it's not the value of the present you give that matters. "I think that a Valentine's gift doesn't need to be of great material worth; it should rather be something that comes from the heart," Yashchenko said.

Yashchenko admitted that despite all the hype in Moscow surrounding the holiday, many Russian men are not natural romantics. But, she said, they are learning. "For example," she said, "this morning I gave my husband a Valentine's Day present, and I hope that next time around, it'll be a two-way process."

Despite its newness in much of the world, Valentine's Day has ancient roots in Europe that go back to Roman times. One of the interpretations is that the celebration began as a pagan tradition in the third century AD. At that time, the goddess Juno was honored each February with a feast, during which the names of young women were put in a box and drawn by lot to be matched with eligible young men. The partners were then considered a couple for the next year, which began in March.

As Christianity became prevalent, priests took over the celebration, replacing the drawing of girls' names with the random picking of saints. Those matched with a saint were expected to emulate their virtues.

Legend has it that one of those priests, named Valentine, had an especially lucky hand and was often called upon to perform marriages. But the emperor Claudius, eager to recruit more soldiers for his war campaigns, decreed that weddings should cease and all engagements be suspended.

Valentine disregarded the order and continued to marry lovers in secret. Jailed by Claudius, Valentine soon died, but not before falling in love with the jailer's daughter and penning her a last missive signed "From your Valentine."

Valentine's followers buried him as a martyr, and he was subsequently canonized as a patron saint of lovers. In the year 496, Pope Gelasius declared a day in February in honor of St. Valentine.

France is often associated with all things romantic. So I asked one of our French journalist colleagues, Antoine Blua, if his countrymen -- and women -- mark Valentine's Day with particular relish. The answer was to be expected. Starting the previous November, Blua said, French women will start dropping hints to their partners about the upcoming holiday. Woe to those who do not heed the call. "Girls attach great importance to this holiday as proof of the love someone has for them. So, if you were to ignore the holiday, a girl could interpret it as a sign you didn't love her enough," Blua said.

Of course, Blua joked, Valentine's Day can have its practical side. If you want to break up with your girlfriend, failing to buy her even a token present on Valentine's Day is a clear way of indicating the relationship is over.

On the other side of Europe, in Bulgaria, Valentine's Day is new, and it coincides with an older, traditional holiday honoring St. Trifon the Vine Cutter, patron of winemakers. On this day, many Bulgarians in the countryside make vine cuttings to symbolize the upcoming spring and express hope for a bountiful wine harvest. But as Elena Nikleva, a broadcaster in RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, told us, the two holidays are natural companions. "Bulgarian society is a changing society which respects old traditions and at the same time is open to the new. As far as I know, about half of Bulgarians celebrate Valentine's Day, the other half the Day of St. Trifon the Vine Cutter. We could also say that people combine those two things, because love and wine go together," Nikleva said.

Half a world away in Tajikistan, Valentine's Day has only been around for a couple of years. But some locals have taken the holiday to heart. Twenty-eight-year-old Tahmina, speaking from the capital Dushanbe, described how she discovered Valentine's Day: "In Tajikistan, we started celebrating this holiday two to three years ago. It's very recent. I found out about it from television, from Europe, through a Russian station. So, it seems they gave us the holiday, and I'm proud that we also have this holiday and we can let our loved ones know we care for them."

Judging by the crowds of young people shopping in central Dushanbe, Tahmina is not alone in her enthusiasm. "Today, I was looking for a present for my sweetheart and honestly, I noticed there were a lot of young people by the gift stands in the stores, both girls and boys, looking for presents for their loved ones," Tahmina said.

Gift selection in Dushanbe is fairly standard: flowers, chocolate, and little plush toys that say "I Love You."

Neighboring China, meanwhile, is in the grips of a flu scare. So drug companies there are hoping to cash in on the illness by promoting medicine instead of chocolates for Valentine's.

One company's advertising slogan goes like this: "One box [of medicine] means, 'I have special feelings for you.' Ten boxes means, 'I give you my whole heart.' Seventy-seven boxes means, 'Marry me.'" The ultimate expression of love, 1,000 boxes, is said to signify that, "'Faithful love will never lessen, even with death.'" Apparently, if you need that much medicine, you're in trouble.

Still, 1,000 boxes of flu medicine might come out cheaper than the 999 red roses true lovers are apparently expected to offer their sweethearts in Taiwan. According to the "Taiwan Times," at an exorbitant $100 per flower, a bouquet of 999 imported long-stemmed roses costs the equivalent of an average annual salary.

Thriftier Taiwanese men could always move to Iran, where the authorities this year have issued a directive banning celebrations of Valentine's Day as an undesirable Western import.