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Love, as they say, makes the world go around. They also say “Love is strange.” And know what? They’re all right. All those silly sayings. Because all around the world, and throughout history, different societies have hit on some very unique ways of demonstrating that love. It hasn’t always been a straight jump from meeting someone at work or on Tinder to booking a Uhaul together or buying a diamond ring. No way. We should consider ourselves lucky, because as much as we could spend time complaining about text etiquette, having the “talk,” or meeting a significant other’s parents for a civilized dinner, at least you never had to deal with rotting fruit, or getting kidnapped, or not being able to use the bathroom. From giving symbolic gifts to performing ritual dances to engaging in what, otherwise, would be considered straight-up criminal acts, love can make people do some crazy things. Here are 42 romantic facts about bizarre courtship rituals.
42. The Eyes Have It
Victorian England was repressive when it came to…pretty much everything. So, it comes as no surprise that their courting culture was extraordinarily repressive. To the point that it was actually quite creative? The Victorians took propriety to eye-popping extremes—like the eye tokens which were briefly in fashion at the end of the 19th century. No, thankfully, they weren’t exchanging dried eyes or anything of the sort. Lovers would exchange tiny paintings of each others’ eyes set in jewelry. Not only were the paintings sufficiently modest, they also allowed the lovers to wear them in public without divulging the identity of their beloved. Unless you were really good at recognizing people by their disembodied features. In which case, you’d have a great career as a Victorian love detective cut out for you.
41. Chopped Liver
In China, the Daur people do not dare plan a wedding until they have found a baby chick and cut it open. The liver of a chick is considered a powerful omen for a marriage, and an engaged couple must inspect the liver together before taking any further steps. If the liver looks healthy, the wedding can proceed. If the liver is discolored or misshapen, the wedding must be delayed until a healthier chicken liver can be found. First of all, can you still love a person after you watch them cut open a chick and inspect its liver? Second, can you still love them after watching them do it multiple times? That’s gotta create some kind of bond…right? I think I’d rather just have a half-dozen baby chicks as pets, honestly.
40. Loving Spoonfuls
From the 17th century on, Welshmen would carve elaborate wooden spoons to show their interest in a young woman. The spoon had to be carved out of a single piece of wood and bore the young woman’s name along with other ornate symbols. If the young woman accepted the offer, and the couple were married, they would usually display the spoon on the wall of their home.
39. Hard Work
In an attempt to prove his worth to the family of his admired, a suitor in the Visayas region of the Philippines will loan himself out to the family to perform any number of chores around the house and farm. The pangagad usually lasts for about a year, a kind of a trial period before any wedding can take place.
38. Salt and Vinegar
Have you tried any of these yet? How’d it go? Not well, huh? Sounds like you might need to try the Vinegar Valentine. This was Victorian England’s anti-courting ritual. Vinegar valentines came with rude, mocking rhymes and insulting illustrations, and were always sent postage due. They were perfect for noisy neighbors, boring bosses, and especially, romantic refuseniks.
37. Knife Tricks
In 19th century Finland, it was the custom for a young woman of marrying age to wear a sheath on her belt. If a young man was interested, he would place his knife in her sheath. Not exactly subtle.
Hey, moms and dads. Are dowries too high? Have you gone broke trying to pay off your daughter’s fiancé’s family? Well why not do like the people of Bihar, India, and kidnap a groom? In a move local police are calling “almost custom,” some Bihar families have taken to abducting eligible bachelors from other villages and forcing them to marry their daughters. It’s not exactly a courtship ritual, per se, but it’s one way to get ’em hitched.
35. Saving a Bundle
The 18th century British and American practice of bundling—that is, letting a young unmarried couple share a bed, but kept separate by a wooden board—may have been the result of an ulterior motive: as one folk song of the period pointed out, two to a bed helps save on heating costs.
34. Love Shack
We’ve looked at some the repressive rituals of English and American Puritan societies. At the exact opposite of that spectrum are the Kreung people of Cambodia, who go so far as to build special huts in which their daughters can entertain gentlemen callers.
33. The System Works!
So long as the young man is gone before morning, Krueng women are encouraged to sleep with as many as they think necessary to find a husband, and are taught to assert their own sexual independence and bodily autonomy. Rape is rare in the culture, as is divorce, and men take an active role in raising children. Add it all up and it sounds like the Kreung might be on to something.
32. Love Shack, Zulu Edition
Half a world away, in southern Africa, the Zulu tribe also build huts for young lovers. The system is similar to that of the Kreung, but sexual intercourse is strictly forbidden.
31. Hold It
For three days before a wedding, a Tidong bride and groom are not permitted to use the bathroom. According to the Tidong people of Malaysia, ignoring this ritual and answering the call of nature would bring terrible luck to a young couple, and could lead to divorce or worse.
30. Grin and Bear It
In Bali, teenagers undergo 13 purification rituals which they must complete before they are allowed to get married. The most extreme of these is the filing of their canine teeth. Performed by a priest, the filing is meant to symbolize the abandonment of humanity’s more animalistic tendencies.
29. Fat Farms
In the Western world, some women will diet and exercise excessively in preparation their big day. Many suffer great anxiety about “fitting into their wedding dress.” Standards of beauty are different in western Africa, where a little extra weight brings connotations of wealth and success. In Mauritania, some brides-to-be still go to “fat farms,” where older women of the village will keep them for several days, fattening them up with milk and couscous.
28. On the Prowl
The bomena, or “night hunting,” may sound frightening to Western ears, but it is a long-standing tradition in rural parts of Bhutan. At nightfall, young men will break into the homes of young women to express their interest, and do their best to convince the young women to sleep with them. These liaisons are consensual, but if the young man is caught in the act, marriage is strongly basically required at that point. To escape a night hunt undetected is no easy task, because Bhutanese families generally sleep in common rooms.
27. Wedlock and Key
Perhaps because of the Bhutanese tradition of sleeping in shared spaces, instances of rape during the bomena is rare. Still, the modernized Bhutanese government has tried to put a stop to the practice; citing frequent instances of single-motherhood in areas which still practice the bomena. The government has instituted strict child support and parental rights laws, discouraging these—ideally—secret couplings.
26. Love Is a Battlefield
Every May, eligible bachelors of Tenganan, Bali, take to a local arena armed with bamboo shields and the thorny leaves of the pandanus plant. For hours, they engage in gladiatorial combat for the sole purpose of impressing the single ladies of the village. Whether or not they are impressed is hard to say, but they certainly are interested: from beyond the ring, the women take turns riding to the top of a massive, foot-powered Ferris wheel to take in the action.
Since the feudal period, Japanese families have turned to professional matchmakers to ensure their sons and daughters find the ideal mate, a tradition they call omiai. Matchmakers performed thorough background checks and conducted extensive interviews with the two families, a grueling and intensive process which, ideally, prevented marital strife and forged strong political ties between noble families.
24. Employee Benefits
Rather than dying out as Japan modernized, omiai flourished. Indeed, the rigid professionalism of omiai made it ideal for the modern era. Even some Japanese corporations practice omiai to find good life mates for their single employees.
23. Sticking Together
At the Sister’s Meal Festival celebrated by the Miao of Southwest China, young women serve men dishes of brightly-colored rice meant to represent the four seasons. The rice, served wrapped in a handkerchief, includes a coded message in the form of chopsticks. A pair of red chopsticks implies interest, a single chopstick, rejection. A pine needle means she hasn’t made up her mind yet.
22. Just Whistle
Young couples of the Kickapoo tribe of Mexico devise secret codes of whistles, which they use to plan meet-ups after dark.
21. Dyngus Day
Once the restrictions and rigidities of Lent are over, Polish teenagers let off steam by dousing potential partners with perfume and whipping each other with pussy willows. These festivities make up “Dyngus Day,” a kind of combination of Valentine’s Day and Polish national celebration. The Polish community of Buffalo, New York, has carried the practice to the United States.
20. Sew Romantic
From the dour, dull Puritans we get the word “puritanical,” an adjective applied to all anti-sexual attitudes. Still, even the Puritans had their romantic rituals. True to form, Puritan women would accept a practical gift of a thimble as a symbol of matrimonial intent. Once the wedding had taken place, they would cut the top off the thimble and use that as a wedding ring.
19. I’m Your Biggest Fan
In the repressive Victorian culture, women were given precious little freedom to express themselves, especially in matters of romance and sexuality. Whatever they had to say on the subject had to be spelled out in codes. One of the most effective of these codes relied on folding fans. With these simple objects, women could convey a broad range of emotions from “I hate you” (a shut fan) to “Kiss me” (a fan opening and shutting). Pity the fella who got the code confused, though.
18. Putting A Stamp on It
Of course, the Victorians’ true love wasn’t love itself, but devising elaborate codes for expressing that love. Any inanimate object could be weighted with symbolic meaning. The stamps on letters, too, carried considerable romantic significance: an upside-down stamp in the left corner meant “I love you,” an upside-down stamp in the right meant quite the opposite.
17. Loads of Codes
Other objects Victorians used to encode romantic messages included parasols, gloves, dance-cards, and flowers.
16. Italian Belts
During the Italian Renaissance, courtiers gave belts to the objects of their affections. These belts were often embroidered with personalized, highly erotic poetry.
In Niger, the Wodaabe gather yearly for their Gerewol festival. Here, men wear brightly colored and elaborate costumes and dance for hours in the scorching heat. To help them endure the days-long dancing, Wodaabe men drink a fermented bark beverage with hallucinogenic effects. They are judged on their beauty by Wodaabe women, making it a kind of reverse-beauty pageant.
14. Falling in Love
Guajiro women of Venezuela and Colombia perform a ritual fertility dance called the chichimaya. During the chichimaya Guajiro men try to distract the women performing the dance, waving their hats and dancing around them. If a woman trips a man during the dance, it’s considered a gesture of affection.
13. A Whale of a Gift
What did you get your partner when you got married? Oh, you went to a jewelry store and bought them a ring? Pfft, wuss. In Fiji, when a man wants to marry a woman, he goes out and he kills a dang whale and plucks out the whale’s teeth. Ok, the “tabua” is now usually bought in Fiji (and men sometimes pawn their possessions to afford one), but it still sounds a lot tougher than a boring old diamond.
Contrary to both popular opinion, the people of Kyrgyzstan believe teardrops on a wedding day are a good thing. To ensure those tears, Kyrgyz men have hit upon a technique that never fails: straight up kidnapping their brides. This isn’t some charming mock-abduction either—this is a full-on illegal abduction of women. Yet, as many as a third of Kyrgyzstan’s marriages happen this way.
11. Spilling the Celery
The modest, anti-modern Amish sect tend to keep mum on matters matrimonial. Still, there is one tell-tale sign that romance is afoot. The star of an Amish wedding feast is creamed celery (which seems oddly perfect for an Amish wedding). When a family begins growing celery in great amounts, a wedding can’t be too far away.
10. The Guards
In China, when a groom goes to meet his bride, he is met by the bridal party. They block the bride’s door until the groom presents them with gifts and money. They might also demand he sing for them or perform a series of physical challenges.
9. Birds of a Feather
In Papua-New Guinea’s remote Mount Hagen, islanders of many tribes still gather every year for their annual sing-sing festival. The festival is a time to celebrate, to sing and dance, but also to make matches. In homage to the mating rituals of local birds, the islanders adorn themselves with body paint and colorful feathers in hopes of catching someone’s eye.
8. The May Tree
The tradition of putting up a Christmas tree comes from Germany and is now practiced all around the world. Germany’s enthusiasm for putting trees up doesn’t stop at Christmas, however. Old German custom saw a young man standing a birch tree on a young woman’s lawn on the first day of May. The tree would be draped in ribbons and decorations bearing the young woman’s name. If the tree lasted the month without being cut down, that was generally considered a good sign.
7. Fluting on Air
Like the Kickapoo, the Sioux also relied on whistling for courtship. Traditionally, Sioux women were meant to be modest and were barred from even looking a non-related man in the eye. An interested man would play the flute outside a young woman’s hut. The mere act of exiting the hut signified mutual interest.
6.Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve
We’ve all heard the phrase “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” That phrase may have its roots in a real-life courting ritual from medieval England. Supposedly, jousting knights would pin a handkerchief or some other token of affection from a young maiden onto their armor, thereby implying they were fighting for the maiden’s honor.
5. From Aww to Eww
Throwing rice on a newlywed couple? Pretty weird. But leave it to Scotland to do things a little more extreme. Scotland is home to the tradition of “blackening,” wherein the friends and family hurl literal garbage at the newlyweds, the grosser the better. If they can endure that public humiliation, the reasoning goes, they should be able to weather anything life throws at them.
4. What’s on the Tube
The 18th century New England society that descended from the Puritans gradually become a more open, relaxed society, but it maintained certain thoughts on propriety. For example, a young man and woman should never be alone together, but they should be allowed to have a private discussion. That little dilemma was solved by the courting stick, a six-foot-long tube which, when pressed to the mouth/ear allowed sweethearts to carry on their conversations in full view of their chaperones.
3. Heads Up!
The Atayal tribe of Taiwan were fierce warriors with a fondness for collecting the heads of their enemies. The heads of enemies had a significance far beyond war-trophies: they were also offered up to young women of the village as a token of romantic intent. The head-offering was practiced well into the 20th century.
2. Keep it Brief
If you’re trying to date a Viking girl, our advice is to get in and get out. Viking marriages were usually arranged, couples barely met before the big day, and artistic displays of love were considered gauche. Prolonged courtships were frowned upon, to say the least: take too long, and the bride’s family might just kill you to defend her honor.
1. Apple of My Eye
19th-century Austrian women had the right idea when they thought of offering something sweet to the man they wanted to marry. But what worked in theory didn’t work in practice, for the Austrian women didn’t provide chocolate or a nice pie or candy. Instead, they brought apple slices, which had been brined in the woman’s own armpit sweat. If a man returned the woman’s affections, he would dutifully eat the apple slices. The things we’ll do for love…
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