Commercial impact of Valentine's Day probably beats tradition

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management, LLC
February 14, 2010

The folks at Nielson estimate that consumers purchased 48 million pounds of chocolate last week, much of which, I am afraid, ended up at my house. If historic trends held, Americans also purchased approximately 180 million greeting cards. Worldwide, more than 1 billion cards were sold. I haven’t seen the 2009 figures, but in 2008, the National Retail Federation reported that Americans spent a total of $17.02 billion on candy, flowers, dinners, Victoria’s Secret goodies and other Valentine’s treats, or about $123 per consumer.

I’m afraid I underspend. Don’t tell my wife.

The modern Valentine’s Day was likely instituted by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, when he declared February 14 a feast day in honor of one of three early Christian saints named Valentine said to have been martyred on February 14.

Like many good parties, however, there is more to the story.

Some historians believe that another factor that may have influenced the selection of February 14 as this day of celebration was the long-standing Roman celebration of Lupercalia, the fertility festival dedicated to the Faunus, the Roman god of wild nature and fertility.

When the Romans threw a party, it was a lot like the backwards areas of Louisiana (think the movie Deliverance.) Somebody was going to get drunk, and somebody was probably going to get slapped. There would be some romance of sorts. And an animal or two might be hurt in the process.

Young Roman men would strip naked and sacrifice a goat. They would then dip strips of the goat’s hide in blood and use the goat straps to gently slap both their crop fields and women – believing that the straps would make each more fertile.

Octomom might have thought twice about seeing a first-century BC fertility specialist.

After being blessed with the bloody goat straps, the women would place their names in a hat, where they would be selected at random to be paired with the young men of the city.

Today you can buy a cute Charlie Brown Valentine’s card that plays piano music when you open it. School children swap those little candy heart things that say “Be Mine” and “Kiss Me.”

We’ve clearly come a long way since naked guys were pulling girls’ names out of a hat. Profit motive can do that. Give Hallmark and Ghirardelli a little running room and look what they did with it.

We often grieve the commercialization of many traditional holidays. I expect Lowes to set out its Holiday Tree display any day now. We lament and complain that corporate interests and profit motive have taken over the true meaning of these celebrations, many of which have a long religious tradition.

Santa Claus or the Nativity? Rudolph or the consecration of a Temple? Sometimes it’s easy to prefer the traditional, even if Wall Street works hard to influence you otherwise.

But given a choice between 58 million pounds of chocolate and the bloody goat straps, I’ll defer to the folks at Hershey.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

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