Love is universal, yes – but romance takes an astonishing array of forms around the world. We've uncovered some of the world’s most fascinating dating, love and marriage customs, from sweet to downright sinister. If you’ve never wooed your beloved with a spoon, won your partner’s weight in beer or been to a spinsters’ ball, read on...

Red envelope China.jpg
A Chinese groom giving his bride a red envelope from her mother-in-law © Jenson / Shutterstock

1. China's bridesmaid blockade

As if the wedding day wasn’t stressful enough, when the Chinese groom comes to fetch his bride he’s confronted by a barrage of bridesmaids blocking his entrance. After demanding red envelopes of money, the bridesmaids (and sometimes even the groomsmen) subject the groom to a series of games and physical tasks – he is forced to sing and generally teased to prove his love.

2. Wife-carrying World Championships

Each year competitors the world over gather in the village of Sonkarjävi, Finland, to partake in this bizarre sporting event. With wife or partner (marriage isn’t a necessity) slung over the shoulder, participants get stuck into a variety of challenges and the winner receives the partner’s weight in beer as well as significant kudos.

3. Whale's tooth gifts

Think you’ve got it hard, traipsing around the shops for that perfect wedding gift? How about this – in Fiji it’s common practice when asking for a woman’s hand in marriage that the man presents his soon-to-be father-in-law with a tabua (a sperm whale’s tooth). Because, let’s face it, it’s not real love unless you have to dive hundreds of metres beneath the ocean and go toe to fin with one of the world’s largest mammals.

Multi-coloured lanterns with messages for Korean Valentine's Day in Seoul, South Korea.
Lanterns for Korean Valentine's Day © ok_fotoday / Shutterstock

4. Korea’s monthly Valentine’s Day

Why have one day when you can have 12? Well, in Korea they don’t just celebrate Valentine’s Day on 14 February – in fact, the 14th day of every month holds a special kind of romantic significance. With days for singletons, days for forgiveness and days just to hug, there’s something to celebrate no matter what your relationship status.

5. Blackening of the bride

In this (somewhat gross) Scottish pre-wedding tradition, the bride-to-be, and sometimes even her groom, are pelted with all manner of disgusting things from rotten eggs to treacle and fish and are paraded through the streets. The Scots believe this humiliation serves to better prepare a couple for married life. It certainly brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘blushing bride’!

6. Toilet tradition in Borneo

The Bornean Tidong tribe, which boasts some of the most heart-meltingly sweet wedding traditions, is also home to one of the most gut-churningly unique customs. After their special day, newlyweds are not allowed to leave their own house for three days and three nights, not even to use the bathroom. The ritual, which involves constant supervision and a restricted diet, is said to bring the couple good luck in their marriage.

Newlywed couple leaving flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.
Newlyweds leaving flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet

7. Graveside weddings in Russia

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow may seem like an unlikely marital hotspot. However, in Russia, it is traditional for newly-wedded couples to visit the site, snap some photos and pay their respects by laying flowers and wreaths on the tomb.

8. The tragic myth of Imilchil Marriage Festival

Set against the mystery and romance of the Atlas Mountains, legend tells the story of two star-crossed lovers forbidden to see each other. In a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque twist of fate, the heartbroken couple drowned in their own tears, forcing their families to reconcile and establish what’s now known as Morocco's Imilchil Marriage Festival. Each year feasting, flirting and frivolity is the backdrop for local tribespeople to socialise and potentially meet their future partner.

9. Step inside a courting hut

Think you had cool parents growing up? Think again. In a revolutionary parenting style, some African tribes provide their daughters with ‘courting huts’ to entertain potential suitors away from the parents’ gaze. A similar custom exists in Cambodia, where unmarried teens are even encouraged to use these huts to explore multiple partners, both socially and sexually, all in a quest to find that one true love.

Exhibits including an urn and a pair of red stilettos at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia.
The poignant Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia © paul prescott / Shutterstock

10. Croatia's Museum of Broken Relationships

This weird and wonderful exhibition in Zagreb, Croatia, features a quirky collection of amorous mementos and random paraphernalia (donated by people from across the globe) left behind after a break-up. The unifying power of heartbreak has had such a draw that the exhibition has toured across the world, and a second permanent branch was opened in Los Angeles in 2016.

11. Romance written in a chicken liver

We’ve all heard of cutting the cake, but cutting the chicken? The Daur people of China have a tradition for couples who become engaged to dissect a chicken and inspect its liver. If the liver is a healthy shape, this is seen as a good omen and a date can be set. If not, the couple must keep searching for that prophetic liver.

12. Tears of joy in China

It’s definitely acceptable to get a little teary at the wedding, but a month before might be overkill. However, for China’s Tujia people it’s customary for the bride-to-be to begin weeping for an hour a day one month before the wedding. Sometime after, her mother joins in, and so on until all the women of the family are shedding a habitual tear. Despite the tears, this is a joyous celebration and it’s said that the different sounds of the women crying are almost like a song.

Padlocks attached to the Ponte Milvio in Rome; the red one in the foreground says "locked together forever".
Padlocks on Ponte Milvio in Rome © Matteo Gabrieli / Shutterstock

13. Love padlocks in Italy

Inspired by Federico Moccia’s book and film I Want You, many people began attaching their own love padlocks to the Ponte Milvio in Rome. In what is now a worldwide phenomenon, couples attach the locks – often complete with a Sharpied proclamation of love – and throw the key into the river as a symbol of their unbreakable love and commitment to one another. Today, however, many cities have banned these amorous trinkets as they have become environmental and structural hazards. Perhaps a simple poem would suffice instead.

14. Russia puts the romance back into Valentine’s Day

On 8 March Russians celebrate Women’s Day. In a custom similar to Valentine’s Day, women are presented with gifts of flowers and chocolate, as well as the chance to put their feet up whilst the men take care of everything else.

15. The bride doll

This simple and sweet Puerto Rican tradition sees a bride doll draped in charms and placed at the head of the top table of the wedding reception. Towards the end of the celebrations, the charms are handed out to the guests as tokens of love and thanks.

Men in costumes and makeup performing at the Gerewol Festival in Niger.
Performers at the Gerewol Festival in Niger © Homo Cosmicos / Shutterstock

16. Ladies’ choice at Gerewol Festival

In an annual courtship event, the men of the Wodaabe Fula in Niger dress up in elaborate costumes, put on make-up and dance and sing in a bid to win a bride. At the end of the performance it’s the women who get to do the choosing.

17. White Day in Japan

On Valentine’s Day in Japan it’s the women who buy chocolates for the men. But never fear, ladies: one month later it’s White Day, when the chaps have to splash out for the girls if their feelings are mutual. Oh, and did we mention they are expected to spend twice as much?

18. Love spoons in Wales

This adorable Welsh tradition gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘spooning’. The beau presents their lover with a meticulously carved wooden spoon as a gesture that they will always feed and provide for them. If the affections are not mutual, the spoon is returned (awkward), but if the spooning is successful, the sweetheart must wear it around their neck for a number of days.

Patio and Juliet's balcony at Casa di Giulietta, Verona, Italy.
Juliet's balcony at Verona's Casa di Giulietta © Stanislav Samoylik / Shutterstock

19. Juliet’s balcony in Verona, Italy

Step back in time into the greatest love story ever. Each year thousands flock to Verona's Casa di Giulietta, a 14th-century house believed to have belonged to the Capulets (never mind that they were all fictional characters), to add their amorous graffiti and notes of adoration to the courtyard walls where once fair Juliet was wooed by her Romeo.

20. Ghadames Date Festival

As the date harvest comes to an end in Ghadames, Libya, locals flock to the World Heritage–listed old quarter to relish in their fruitful harvest. As the festivities progress, expect to see many wedding ceremonies held as a coming-of-age celebration for young men.

21. Bachelor and Spinster Balls in Australia's Outback

A cherished Aussie tradition, B and S Balls offer a rare opportunity for youngsters from the bush to socialise – that would be the censored version. Notorious for binge drinking, dangerous stunts and casual sex, these parties are under pressure from insurance companies to close down. But beneath the dust and debauchery, the Balls are loaded with that quintessential Aussie joie de vivre and are seen as a rite of passage for kids in the Outback who often lead quite secluded lives.

Tribesmen in traditional dress at a Mt Hagen sing-sing in Papua New Guinea.
A Mt Hagen sing-sing in Papua New Guinea © John Crux / Shutterstock

22. Mt Hagen sing-sings

Deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea you’ll find this amazing display of colour, cacophony and courtship. The tribesmen paint their bodies and don colourful feathered costumes in an attempt to impress potential lovers. The sing-sings are a kind of spiritual mimesis – the tribesmen take on the form and mating rituals of the male birds-of-paradise in a kaleidoscopic show of affection.

23. My big ‘rich’ Greek wedding

Known for their ebullient spirit, Greek weddings are definitely on our radar. A particularly wonderful tradition is the couple’s first dance, when guests pin money to the bride’s and groom’s clothing leaving them twirling about the floor entwined in decorative (not to mention, expensive) paper streams. Believe it or not, this custom is actually considered an honour for the guests.

24. Henna tattoos

A key feature in Arabic and African communities is the Swahili women's custom to adorn themselves with intricate henna patterns before a wedding. They signify the bride’s beauty, womanhood and worth, so she, naturally, boasts the most elaborate designs – except for the mother of the bride, perhaps. Aside from their aesthetic delights, these tattoos represent an empowering, sensual quality in Swahili culture, as the design often conceals the groom’s initials in a secret spot on the bride’s body.

A bride and groom jump over a broom at their wedding ceremony in the USA.
Jumping the broom in the USA's Deep South © In The Light Photography /Shutterstock

25. Jumping the broom

A custom from the American Deep South, ‘jumping the broom’ means the newlyweds leap hand-in-hand over a ceremonial broom, which symbolises the start of their journey into domesticity and a new life together. Born in the time of slavery, when the wedding vows and ceremonies of African Americans were not recognised, this humble tradition pays homage to a rich and important African American heritage.

26. Separation before ceremony?

Divorce is a fairly common occurrence these days – still, it should be the furthest thing from your mind on your wedding day, right? Apparently not in the Ukraine, where extremely traditional couples take revenge on their matchmaker by burning an effigy of them at their wedding ceremony in anticipation of a potential messy divorce in the future.

27. Tree’s the one for me

Some unlucky girls in India are born during the astrological period when Mars and Saturn are both under the seventh house. What’s so wrong with that, you ask? Basically, it means they are cursed. Those unfortunate few, known as Mangliks, are said to bring an early death to their husband. The only remedy, it would seem, is to have the Manglik marry a tree and then have the tree cut down to break the curse.

28. France’s toilet tradition

In a weird, wonderful, yet utterly gross fashion, French newlyweds were made to drink the leftovers from their wedding party out of a toilet bowl. Yuk! Thankfully, this custom no longer exists in its entirety, but don’t be surprised if you come across the bride and groom supping on chocolates and champagne served out of a replica toilet bowl. How romantic.

29. Beating the groom’s feet

In Korea, after the wedding ceremony it’s commonplace for the groom to have his feet whipped with fish and canes before he is allowed to leave with his new wife. Supposedly, this bizarre act of cruelty proves the groom’s strength and character.

30. Eloping in Scotland

When the Marriage Act of 1754 made it illegal for persons under 21 to get hitched, young English sweethearts came up with a cunning plan to simply hop across the border to Scotland where the law didn’t apply. As the first village en route, Gretna Green grew to be the favourite spot for eloping couples – to this day, more than 2000 couples visit each year to tie the knot or reaffirm their vows.

31. Salty bread to inspire romantic dreams

In a celebration of the feast of St Sargis, the patron saint of young love, unmarried Armenian women eat a slice of salty bread in the hopes of having a prophetic dream about the man they’ll marry. Not to be taken too seriously, the idea is that the man who brings you water in your dream is your future beau. It’s also a kind of bonding ritual for the women in the family to share and interpret each other’s dreams.

You might also like these:

Pop the question at the world's best engagement destinations
Wild weddings: where to get married outdoors in the UK
Classic romantic trips with an adventurous twist

Researched and compiled by Louise Bastock. This article was first published in June 2014 and updated in February 2020.

This article was first published Jun 2, 2014 and updated Feb 26, 2020.

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