My Sweetheart’s Gone

When the changing economy affects the holiday traditions – that’s heartless!
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Posted February 5, 2019

It’s no secret that we’re in a state of cultural revolution. Not “revolution” in terms of violent overthrows of government, but from the root word of “revolution” – to revolve, to change paradigms.

Thus far in this new century, we’ve had revolutions regarding how we communicate with one another, how we do our shopping, how we conduct our most private, personal business.

But whoever thought we’d have a revolution on holidays? Thanksgiving is now a gateway weekend to the holiday shopping season. Christmas Eve and Day are merely punctuations on a month-long consumer marketing frenzy.

Washington’s and Lincoln’s February birthdays have been conflated into a single shopping event for appliances and mattresses. Memorial Day falls whenever it’s convenient to have a three-day weekend in May and open the pools and beaches.

Columbus Day has fallen out of favor entirely.

There are some that have resisted this change. Halloween is stronger than ever. Independence Day remains rooted in place, no matter where on the calendar July 4 occurs. (Often offering extra-long holiday weekends, sometimes two, which I don’t think anyone feels is a bad change.)

And then there’s Valentine’s Day, that tribute to love, flowers, candy and jewelry, a bright-red-hued, satin-and-lace break in gray February, in the shape of a heart. (Not the organ in our bodies, of course, but a replica of a fruit in ancient India. It is said that the fruit of the plant Silphium was used as a contraceptive, which I guess makes sense.)

Can anything shake the foundational roots of this holiday? Unlike some other trodden-over traditions, Valentine’s Day has not given over to digitalization. We still put printed valentines into paper envelopes. We still go into a store to buy special candy boxes and flowers. We still make reservations at our favorite romantic restaurants. Most of those restaurants still put a rose – actual or fabric – on our tables. Cupid and his arrow continue to hover above us, in a dreamy way.

And yet.

One of the hoariest traditions of Valentine’s Day is suddenly gone, with no more preparation than a hastily written Dear John letter.

In late January, the New England Confectionery Co. (Revere, Mass.) closed its factory doors. There will be no Sweethearts for your sweetheart on the store shelves this holiday. Sweethearts, as all romantics know, are those little heart-shaped candies with sweet-nothing inscriptions. LOVE YOU. BE MINE. KISS ME.

Those aren’t copyrighted phrases. We can all still text or tweet or ’gram those same thoughts. But, as the Boston Globe noted, “What does ‘Be Mine’ even mean if it’s not stamped in red vegetable dye on a lump of sugar, corn syrup, dextrose and glycerin?”

OK, so that’s one Valentine’s Day epic change. Here’s another – smaller, less epic, but still unsettling.

Hershey Kisses, another Valentine’s Day staple, have been arriving in stores beheaded, missing the curlicue tips that gave the candy its distinctive shape. (So distinctive, in fact, that Hershey, Pa., has streetlights in that shape.)

Is The Hershey Co. in financial trouble? Was this yet another sign of the apocalypse? Will the tips be back for Valentine’s Day? No. No. And no.

The company shrugged it off to a “manufacturing process glitch.” The problem has been solved, and the tips will be back in place. Just not in time for this Valentine’s Day.

Can we even look our valentines in the face this month, with no candy messages and with misshaped chocolate drops (an unwelcome omen, perhaps, of an incomplete relationship)? Will Valentine’s Day become just another Flag Day, a once-bustling and meaningful point on the calendar that nobody even seems to notice anymore?

Probably doubtful. It’s still hard to get a last-minute February 14 dinner reservation. The florists are still readying their extravagant bouquets. In the jewelry world, kiss still begins with K.

One good thing did come out of this, though. If you’ve spent much of your life wondering what in the world a Necco wafer meant, The New England Confectionery Co., in its dying gasp, has at last provided the answer.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.