Hallmark redefines the holidays

Imagine three businessmen sitting calmly in their suits around a large boardroom table staring at numerous calendars spread out before them. Yes, here, at the top of their corporate offices in Kansas City, these men — the leaders of Hallmark Cards — are deciding on the next holiday. They are selecting another date to add to a litany of special occasions, another chance for you to pick up a Hallmark card — the gold standard of love — and present it to your mother, your father, your spouse, your sweetest. Except that is all this is — an imagination, a fantasy, a bit of conspiratorial anti-commercial dreaming.

Valentine’s Day is often viewed as a prime offender of commercialism; how could it not have been created by the fine-chocolate, flower-bouquet, and greeting-card industries? Unfortunately, especially for the most cynical (and single) university students, Valentine’s Day traditions date back much further than the modern American corporations.

Neither the traditions behind Valentine’s Day nor the life of Saint Valentine himself are particularly straightforward. Saint Valentine himself is a collection of at least six different martyred Valentines, of whom only one has a clear relation to Feb. 14, and none have any connection to sending a lover a number of roses. Aha! Then we can of course assume this saint with a confusing history was conscripted by a few inventive young businessmen to up their revenue in February — except, not quite.

By the time Shakespeare had Ophelia mentioning Valentine’s Day — “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day / All in the morning betime / And I a maid at your window / To be your Valentine” — writing valentines had been performed (and documented) for nearly 200 years. While the tradition was more likely a behavior of the bards, poets, and the wealthy back then, valentines were being produced in factories for contemporary consumers by the 1800s, and by 1847 valentines were being mass-produced in America. Hallmark would not be founded by J.C. Hall until 1910.

While Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the ever-mocked “Sweetest Day,” and even Christmas have been included in the class of derided “Hallmark holidays,” each of these has its own tradition, none of which include any public origination from the corporate conference rooms in Kansas City. What this speaks to is Hallmark’s well-researched approach to “supporting” a holiday. On any Internet-based calendar, there are far more than enough obscure holidays to fill every day of the year twice over. What J.C. Hall, and his son, and his sons, have done well over their 100 years of operating Hallmark is selecting and popularizing holidays to the point where sending a card has become a social necessity.

The perceived Hallmarkization of holidays in an attempt to decry American industry as ruthlessly capitalistic inventors of fake celebrations falls flat with a knowledge of the underlying tradition. Instead, we are left with a tribute to the inventiveness of the corporation, taking the concept of a valentine and bringing it to the masses.

In reality, we do not all have the linguistic ability of Chaucer, the Duke of Orleans, John Donne, or Shelley; we cannot create compelling couplets of love on command. Much of the appeal of greeting cards — for Valentine’s Day or otherwise — comes from the ease of having someone else find the right words for us in the mass-marketed pink and red cards with lace and just the right balance of love, cheesiness, and corporate perfection.