Because we were away for Thanksgiving and then had company a few days after we returned home, I got a late start on my Christmas cards this year. I usually start writing them (yes, write, as in hand-writing a a personalized greeting, composing and printing a half-page newsletter to enclose, and hand-addressing the envelopes) the day after Thanksgiving so they can be in the mail in early December.
I put myself on a schedule of writing 10-15 a day, with the overseas cards going out first and all the rest in the mail by the 10th. We’ve pared the list down over the years as, unfortunately, people die or their whereabouts become unknown, but we still send out about 120. All the recipients are friends far away, not business associates, though they might have been colleagues at some point long ago. They are people we care about and who tell us, when we see them or talk to them at other times, how happy it makes them to hear from us and to feel “still connected.” So no, we don’t automatically drop people from the list just because they don’t send us cards in return.
Now if all this Yuletide communication sounds like a lot of trouble and expense, well, let me not be modest: it is! But it’s worth it. To co-opt a popular motto, friendship is truly “the gift that keeps on giving,” and sending cards is one way for me to sustain and support that gift over time and distance. Besides, I’m a writer, it’s what I do. I like the challenge of crafting a short holiday letter with photographs, I enjoy signing the cards and adding brief comments that are of interest to particular people, and I find satisfaction in updating addresses and family names and having all my contacts in order. Call me crazy, but to me the ritual of holiday cards is a correspondence bonanza!
Not only do I enjoy sending cards, but I delight in receiving them, as well. I read every note and every letter — even those long, boring ones full of news about people I don’t know. I love hearing all about happy events, exciting travels, and humorous experiences because they’ve happened to people I care about; I am also honored to be included in their less-than-happy news precisely because I do care and friends share support and understanding. Life is not always an image from a Hallmark card — not even at Christmas.
We all know that thank-you notes and written responses to formal invitations have long since disappeared (along with cursive handwriting), but these days written correspondence of any kind is often perceived as anachronistic. Yet, a 2018 survey found that 81 percent of respondents considered a hand-written note more meaningful and personal than digital correspondence, and 87 percent of surveyed millennials agreed! (“Greeting Cards Have Superpowers,” The New York Times, 12/15/19) You can’t make much meaning in a 280 character tweet, which is only about 33-35 words in English, and an e-mail or text message that is too long will likely get deleted before it is even completely read. A carefully-chosen card or a penned personal note, on the other hand, can not only be read and reread, but perhaps kept as a keepsake for years to come.
So, yesterday I went to Barnes and Noble and bought six boxes of potential “keepsakes” for next year. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. I used to have to wait until the day after Christmas and then fight the crazy day-after crowds to get my greeting cards on sale, but in recent years, many stationers and bookstores, even Hallmark stores, have begun their mark-downs a week or so earlier. This means a much broader selection of styles and messages from which to choose, and a greater possibility of finding several boxes of the same design. My card list is extremely diverse, so I have to consider appropriate messages for various cultural and religious traditions among our friends. And of course, I want the cards to reflect us and to be big enough in size to accommodate an enclosure and messages in my large handwriting.
Taken altogether, greeting cards and the missives they contain ultimately say more than just what is literally expressed. The kind of card someone sends — religious, humorous, cutsie, elegant — is a message in itself, as is the complimentary closure above the signature — “love,” “best wishes” — or the absence of any closure at all. But even Christmas cards trend. Years ago when we were first married, the fashion was to have cards printed with your name, maybe even personally designed and printed, and then you might add your own hand-written message. My mother-in-law called me on that and said it was “too corporate.” Interestingly, today, businesses large and small still have company cards printed, but often include the written signatures of employees, or at least of the employees within a group or division. The newest trend in personal cards seems to be the Shutterfly-type postcards that showcase photos of children, grandchildren and pets, but usually don’t contain a personal message.
The bottom line is that I’m not the only one who values holiday cards. There are some 3,000 greeting card publishers in the United States (Hallmark being by far the largest), and Americans buy, send, and give roughly 2 billion holiday cards each year. Yes, we send about 500 million e-cards too, but snail mail wins in this category. The U.S. Postal Service issued the first Christmas postage stamp in 1962; first-class was 4 cents then, compared to 55 cents today.
For the final word on this whole subject, I quote the hand-written message in a recently-received card about the “wonder of the season” from a college friend of ours: “I find it amazing that we are all still here and still writing Christmas cards to each other!” A wonder indeed…
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Season’s Greetings.