While digging through book reviews from 1883 for dissertation research, I discovered that one book published that year (which was apparently fairly popular, since I saw several different reviews) was all about the symbolism of various flowers you might give and receive. This was a popular pastime in the Victorian era, with many books and pamphlets produced to be sure that you could say or interpret exactly what you wanted with your floral gifts.
Low and behold, while home this morning because of the ice storm, Lisa Benenson of Hallmark Magazine appeared on the Today show to discuss just this subject. Here is her list of the meanings of flowers. I was a little surprised at the definiteness she gave the subject—such as the absolutely horrible nature of yellow flowers, implying jealousy, disdain, etc.
It seems that unless someone is privy to this system, all these meanings would not be clear. They aren't universal symbols, or else all the books that were published would have been unnecessary. But, it made me think about other issues—namely, as to why, like at Christmas, someone was on television dictating symbolic language to America. What is it about holidays that brings a symbolic urge to companies?
Ronald Grimes, the ritual theorist, maintains that an underlying symbolic language begins at birth, with the rituals established between mother and baby as the baby cries for food and the mother picks it up, day after day. Again I wonder about symbols that are dictated to people, as opposed to those arising naturally. Can they have any effect? Or, in this case, is just the commonly understood symbol of love from flowers enough? And, Hallmark should remember that symbols are always multivalent—different people interpret them differently. Things less fundamental than water, food and drink seemingly would be more difficult to include in an underlying symbol system.
The emotions inherent in Valentine's Day (you can read its history at this quality internet website) and Christmas would definitely give strong associations with the symbols surrounding them. Is it the emotional nature of the holidays that brings out easy symbol appropriation? And, what does that say about other symbols? Does emotional content help their effect? Or, conversely, does it cloud their effect?