Re-posted from The Federalist.
I remember my mom every December buying boxes of Christmas cards, pulling out her address book, and spending hours signing cards and addressing envelopes. As cards from family and friends arrived at our house, they would be prominently displayed on the mantel above the stockings or hung on a string suspended across one end of the dining room.
I found the whole process fascinating. The address book itself told story after story, with names and dates added or erased as children were born and people married, divorced or deceased. There were people in my mom’s address book I didn’t know and never would, yet they nevertheless held a place in my imagination by virtue of the yearly sending and receiving of cards.
Mr. Mita, a friend of my mom’s from when her first husband was stationed in Japan, will forever live in my memory as the gentleman who sent those gorgeous Japanese calendars every year. Long since deceased, I’m sure he would be amazed to know he is remembered by someone who was born years after my mom saw him for the last time.
The Christmas card tradition influenced me, and I have continued it in my own life. But it seems I am part of a dwindling population, as Christmas cards, and greeting cards in general, have fallen on hard times. There are several oft-stated reasons for the decline, the rise of social media being first among them. Why send Christmas cards to people you’ve been in regular contact with on Facebook all year? So much easier to just wake up on Christmas morning, type a greeting in your status bar, click, and be done with it. Facebook is only too happy to help by providing plenty of festive stickers to decorate your greeting.
But it’s not just Facebook. Another stated reason for the decline in paper cards and letters is the rising cost of postage. To send 100 cards this year will cost you $47, not counting the cost of the cards, and that’s assuming you don’t make the mistake I did a few years ago and purchase irregularly shaped cards that require additional postage. (They weren’t that big, mind you, just square instead of rectangular. I won’t make that mistake again!) It is worth noting, however, that while the nominal price of a stamp has gone up considerably, the inflation-adjusted price has actually remained relatively stable throughout American postal history.
Yet even discounting the disincentives of social media and cost, it seems that Christmas cards have become an easy target. Some mock the mass-mailed update letter as an exercise in narcissism, sharing whitewashed family comings-and-goings that most recipients have no interest in reading. On the other hand, if there’s no letter attached, just a signature, the card is viewed as pointless and impersonal. Barring the inclusion of a lengthy personal note in flowing calligraphy tailored to each individual recipient, it is hard for the beleaguered Christmas card practitioner to win.
Still, I and others like me are undeterred in feeling that a Christmas without cards is missing something. Whether you have never sent Christmas cards before or have dropped the practice in recent years, here are some reasons to start or maintain this worthwhile tradition.
You Can Touch a Christmas CardIn an increasingly abstract and ephemeral world, Christmas cards are concrete. Even as we are told “the Internet is forever,” digital greetings briefly pierce our consciousness only to disappear into the cosmos, never to be gazed upon again.
Real cards, on the other hand, connect us to the sender in a way that an electronic greeting does not. That card in your hands was first handled by the one who sent it to you. This year’s stack of cards, if saved, will someday be a window into the past.
I don’t save every Christmas card I receive. But I do save many, particularly those that contain communication beyond the card itself. I look forward to someday sitting in my rocking chair, going through old cards and letters, and reflecting on the people and events they call to mind.
Not Everyone Lives on Social MediaYou may think that all your Facebook friends know what you’ve been up to this year because you’ve put it all on Facebook, but guess what? Not everyone spends as much time scrolling their news feed as you and I do. All those updates and beautifully worded posts are not necessarily reaching those who care about you.
Particularly the older generation, who did not grow up with social media and who don’t care to figure it out now, would appreciate knowing that you thought enough of them to send a card and letter. You might be surprised to discover, when an elderly relative dies, that among the things he or she saved and cherished were cards and letters you took the time to send.
There Are Ways to Send Christmas Cards EconomicallyIt’s possible to spend hundreds of dollars on Christmas cards. But you can significantly cut the cost by purchasing cards on clearance for the following year, foregoing expensive stationery, and doing it yourself on photography and printing.
If you want to send photo cards, make sure not to pay full price. Companies like Shutterfly and Vistaprint typically have promotions or coupons offering up to 50 percent off depending on the size of your order. Here are some more ways to cut corners (pun not intended) on holiday cards. By the way, in no case should you fork over the bucks for foil-lined envelopes. Countless are the times I have damaged the fragile card inside by trying to open one of those stubborn things.
Christmas Cards Offer Opportunities for Reflection and Creativity
Writing Christmas greetings, whether short or long, personal or printed, affords the chance to look back on the year that has passed. As I wrote our family’s Christmas letter this year, I aimed to keep it to one page, which, given the size of our family, the events of the year, and my natural love for the written word, was no small feat.
What to include? What to leave out? The permanence of ink on paper seems to engender a greater level of attention and care for what one shares. The words you write have the potential to make a significant difference in someone’s life today or years hence when your letter is rediscovered and read. Don’t take it lightly. Make it good, make it honest, and make it you.
Christmas Cards Are Good for the Soul
While we tend to focus on the benefits of cards and letters to those who receive them, possibly the greatest benefit is to the sender. I didn’t send out cards last year. We had just gone through a home purchase and move and my elderly mother was failing. It was too much to try to do cards on top of all that. But in not doing so I missed out on something I value: the experience each year of going through my address book and thinking about the people therein.
There’s a reason those names are in the book, whether I am in close contact with them anymore. As I address and sign cards, I take a few moments to remember people who have played some role in my life, major or minor. I call to mind memories of places and events that I might not otherwise ponder. As I do so, I smile, laugh, or maybe cry. (On the rare occasion I grimace, it might be time to take a name out of the book.)
Ultimately, even if my recipient never reciprocates, or tosses my card and letter in the trash with nary a glance, the act of writing and sending it helped make me more human.
As I address and sign cards, I take a few moments to remember people who have played some role in my life, major or minor.
I come from a blended, far-flung family. I have relatives, siblings even, whom I sometimes go many years without seeing. As a result I have long relied on my mom to keep tabs on people. I might lose track of where people were and what they were doing, but she never did. I knew I could borrow her address book and by looking through it at any time get caught up on all the branches of my complex family tree.
Eventually my mom’s ability to keep track of the family waned. She quit writing letters, sending cards, making phone calls. In February this year she died. There will be no more updates to her address book.
Perhaps that is one reason it was so important to me to send Christmas cards this year. As I did so I made a concerted effort to update my own address book, tracking down contact information for nieces, nephews, and cousins I haven’t done the best job of keeping up with. It’s time for me to honor my mom’s memory by continuing to do what I learned from her.
Years ago, when my mom was still living on her own, she made a friend in her apartment complex, a younger woman who regularly chatted with and checked in on her. When mom moved in with me, that friend of hers, also named Cheryl, kept in touch by sending cards. A couple of years ago, as my mom’s decline accelerated, I sent a Christmas card to Cheryl, letting her know that mom was no longer able to send her own.
This year Cheryl will receive a card and letter from me with the news that the older woman she was once so kind to has completed her course on this earth. As I wrote Cheryl’s card, I gave thanks for her and the blessing she was to my mom’s life. I fully intend to send her another card next year.