In the days> leading up to Feb. 14, the grousing will reach a fever pitch. Lovers everywhere will complain they feel pressured to robotically express their affection with cards, flowers and cheap teddy bears. Asked to name a culprit, most will blame the greeting-card industry, as if it were a shadowy mind-control operation able to brainwash the Western world with its clever in-store displays.
The irony, of course, is that Valentine's Day is one of the few holidays with bona fide roots dating from medieval times. If you want to gripe about manufactured holidays, consider Sweetest Day, launched in 1916 by the National Confectioners Association, or Secretaries' Day (now known, of course, as Administrative Professionals' Day), foisted on the public in 1952 by a PR wizard working for the National Secretaries Association. The greeting-card industry has even promoted a few occasions of its own. A 1927 almanac published by one hopeful cardmaker listed "time honored" card-giving occasions like Moving Day and Friendship Day. Hallmark recently introduced cards to recognize more than a dozen new occasions, including adoption and rehab.
The phenomenon reaches its fullest expression online, where e-card sites lure visitors with a smorgasbord of holidays. The most popular site, 123Greetings.com, recognizes 3,000 card-sending situations thanks to a Kolkata, India-based staff that studies American customs and trends by watching Oprah and The Daily Show on YouTube. CEO Arvind Kajaria, a former investment banker, says his team needs just half an hour to create a card commemorating a news event like the stock market meltdown (sample: "In this hour of financial crisis, you'll be in my thoughts and prayers!").
It also produces cards for some 1,500 annual events, including Remote Control Day (June 29) and Squirrel Awareness Week, which Kajaria swears are preexisting holidays: "Most are approved by the U.S. president!" But Aravind Rajendran, the company's 27-year-old senior visualizer, admits to coining a few, including Pickle Appreciation Day ("I like things spicy!") and Tell a Lie Day ("It's a habit-why not make it an event?").
You can't blame the $7.5 billion greeting-card industry for expanding the universe of card-giving occasions-sales have been flat for years. But most insiders will never admit it's deliberate. "They're very defensive about it," says Emily West, a University of Massachusetts assistant professor who studies the industry. "They hate the phrase 'Hallmark holiday.'" Indeed, cardmakers say they merely respond to consumer demand. Hallmark, for example, employs a large team of researchers who study celebration trends and determine an occasion's "card sendability" through surveys and focus groups. Still, a little marketing boost never hurts. When Hallmark launched a new card line to help women "recognize such everyday situations as growing out their bangs or dumping their boyfriend," it spent $15 million on a campaign that included TV and print ads and signs in public restrooms. It even hired troupes to sing and dance in the streets.
Sticklers will be relieved to learn there's actually a semiofficial arbiter of what constitutes a legitimate holiday: Chase's Calendar of Events, published every year since 1957. The 750-page tome recognizes 12,500 calendar events ranging from the commercial (National Prime Beef Month) to the historic (the anniversary of Charlie Parker's first recording). Editor Holly McGuire says she gets thousands of nominations every year, but few make the cut: "We get a lot of wackos." It helps to have media coverage, a chamber-of-commerce proclamation or committed sponsors. She has faith, for instance, that the Wisconsin dentist behind Root Canal Appreciation Day (May 13) will keep the occasion in the public eye. "He wants people to know it's not as bad as you think," she says. Can the Hallmark card be far behind?