U.S. retailers’ infatuation with Valentine’s Day has been on display in nearly every store window and newspaper ad for weeks. Such sentiments are certainly heartfelt, as consumers are expected to express their own affection to the tune of $13.7 billion this year, up 22 percent from just five years ago, according to the National Retail Federation. Only Christmas and the back-to-school selling seasons create bigger revenues. And it seems merchants are clearly aiming to eventually boost the holiday into second place.
But despite the pressure to buy gifts, most of that money will be spent the way it has traditionally been spent, on tokens of affection — cards, candy, flowers and dinner out. For restaurants in particular, the holiday is second only to Mother’s Day with 35 percent of Americans expected to dine out with their loved ones as couples and families.
As for those cards, according to Hallmark, half of the U.S. population celebrates Valentine’s Day by purchasing at least one greeting card. They anticipate 180 million valentines will be exchanged this year not including those used in the traditional classroom exchanges. “Valentine’s Day is the second largest holiday for giving greeting cards after Christmas,” says Rachel Bolton, a spokesperson for Hallmark Cards, Inc. in Kansas City. Ensuring everyone finds the ‘perfect’ card the company offers over 2,000 different designs.
But that may be overkill.
When it researched the top-selling valentine in the New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Miami markets last year, Hallmark found it was the same card. “We then checked Kansas City. Same card. We looked nationwide and found that same card was the favorite virtually everywhere,” says Bolton.
What does it mean that so many wished to say ‘I love you’ in the same way? “When it comes to love, people are more alike than they are different,” says Bolton. “It’s really all about expressing the same message.”
What this card that speaks for a nation says is: “For the One I Love…Each time I see you, hold you, think of you, here’s what I do…I fall more deeply, madly, happily in love with you.”
That sentiment is ultimately what Valentine’s Day is all about, and for all the pre-holiday sales, that message has been consistent since the first valentines were exchanged in the 15th century.
Despite the prevailing cynicism that Valentine’s Day was invented by greeting card companies and quickly adopted by every retailer and restaurateur in America — the holiday actually dates back to 498 A.D. with the official recognition of the life of St. Valentine, who was put to death for performing marriages. The celebration co-opts an even earlier pagan festival honoring the goddess of love and marriage. The point of the holiday — and for St. Valentine — has always been the celebration of affection.
“Jewelry wears thin. Flowers die. But cards get kept and gestures remembered. Ultimately, what is important, what people remember isn’t the expense but the expression, and it’s meaningfulness,” says Dr. Gilda Carle, a relationship expert and well-known author on the topic of love.
Whether it is a dinner for two people just starting to get to know one another, flowers for mom, a special family dinner with candles and the good dishes, or sending a good friend a card, it is an opportunity to pause and celebrate affection whatever form it takes.
For all the hype over gifting and the full court marketing press to make Valentine’s Day a shopping extravaganza, the day for most households remains more about being on the receiving end of a meaningful gesture than about the sales receipts.
“We use the day to recognize the importance of love in our family,” says Geoff Luce a father of two from Lake Forest, Illinois. While Luce acknowledges romantic dinners for two still figure into their lives, Valentine’s Day itself is more about exchanging meaningful tokens — cards, candy, flowers and stuffed animals — within the family and spending time together rather than about expensive gifts and dinners.
That is as it should be, according to Carle. “We live such hurried lives; we forget to affirm our affection for the people who mean the most to us, “ she says. “It is crucial for people to periodically let the people close to them know how they feel.” In theory, adds Carle, everyday should be like Valentine’s Day. And every Valentine’s Day should be about whom you spend it with, not how much was spent.
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