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Holiday Guide

Pushing the Envelope

When it comes to Christmas cards, it really is the thought that counts (and actual paper)

Photo: Emily Flake, License: N/A

Emily Flake

A college friend used to make routine sport of my embrace and perpetuation of the holiday-card tradition, mockingly describing it as “bourgeoisie.” Needless to say, we’re no longer homies.

Hang fragrant boughs of holly at framed-portrait heights. Unwrap and situate antique tchotchkes with care. Yes, by all means, rejoice and be merry—pin tricolored stockings o’er the hearth, bathe in the cathode-ray bliss of A Christmas Story marathon, cue up bit-from-vinyl Andy Williams chestnuts via YouTube, methodically mutilate a hulking blue spruce to make your cloistered walkup seem temporarily less cell-like. Make no mistake, though: Your home isn’t quite Christmas-decorated until it’s wallpapered with holiday cards.

Sheathed in eye-popping reds, equanimous greens, or deceptive whites, holiday cards start infiltrating postal loads at about the same point eggnog materializes in grocer’s daily cases everywhere: Thanksgiving weekend. And then, all of a sudden, the floodgates swing open: a postmarked sluice of miniaturized middle-American Christmas scenes, cartoon Santa Clauses laughing through indigo skies, idyllic biblical manger-porn vistas, psychotically folded cash bundles, or Sears-Photo-Studio-originated family photographs, greetings exceedingly perfunctory or gregariously rambling. Most take these intimations of delight and affection for granted, but in a sense the holiday card is significantly more emblematic of the season’s spirit of universal peace and good will than gift cards, gifts, and inedible fruit cakes combined.

An inherently selective enterprise, Christmas gift-giving channels creative energies and cash reserves into brightening the spirits of those closest to us. Most of us—unless we’re Wall Street banker or major-league-athlete rich—are probably not going to blow a wad on presents for everyone we know. With holiday cards, we’re able to expand our largesse exponentially. Suddenly, extending some dap to your boss, your third cousin, your favorite server at your favorite restaurant, or your child’s teacher becomes infinitely more economical. It also transforms you into a minor hero of sorts, rescuing friends, relations, and acquaintances from the soul-crushing postal monotony of credit-card solicitations and political entreaties. In displaying the cards we receive, we transform our living spaces into tributes to those we cherish. Whether near or far, we bring them closer, engendering warmth that brightens some of the darkest days of the year, literally and emotionally.

Thus it’s been disheartening to witness the slow death of the holiday-card tradition, almost in tandem with the withering of the United States Postal Service. The once-deafening blare of season’s greetings has faded to a hoarse whisper, and the deluge hasn’t universally been replaced or replicated by electronic e-cards. It’s almost as if the surfeit of internet-based communication, or the illusion or possibility of same, somehow stands in for the very human, inimitable act of exchanging tangible communiqués. And though the sales numbers the United States Greeting Card Association proffers are formidable—of the 7 billion greeting cards Americans buy every year, an estimated 1.5 billion are holiday cards—the trade organization’s bravado can’t disguise the truth of the industry’s erosion. Varieties and quantities of cards have declined at retail stores; in a creeping paradigm shift that mirrors music retailers’ pivot away from compact discs and toward DVDs, clothing, and other non-downloadable goods, Hallmark stores seem keener to peddle paperweights, animatronic seasonal oddities, and scented candles than the cards they ostensibly exist to vend.

Nonetheless, Doug Faust, vice president of cardstock supplier Masterpiece Studios and a past Greeting Card Association president, strikes a confident tone in an e-mail interview. Conceding that the number of cards sent at Christmastime has dropped “slightly” since the mid-1990s and noting that hard sales figures are hard to come by, Faust insists that the revolution brought about by e-cards and software that allows home PC users to mint and print their own cards is less about decline than a “transformation of the industry.

“The growth of social media, text messaging, and e-mail would seem at face value to threaten the tradition of buying and sending greeting cards,” Faust acknowledges. “In fact, reconnecting with friends through Facebook and other social media has actually helped renew the desire for meaningful connections. . . . An ink-on-paper card that has been selected and personalized by the sender can be cherished forever by the receiver.”

There was a sort of romance surrounding holiday cards when I was growing up, as postmarks accrued and connective webs auto-illustrated and illuminated in my mind. Missives arrived from Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; Denton, Texas; Atlanta, Ga.; and Chicago, and from many points further beyond, places I’d never visited before where I couldn’t quite imagine myself, as my annual list of demands winged its way to the North Pole. It wasn’t about the sentiments; the sentiments were almost beside the point. Each card upped the Yuletide ante, simultaneously reaffirming the existence of a world beyond my immediate surroundings and the season of lights swirling and blinking around us. And, as in a dream, the experience of Christmastime accelerated to a sweet, drugged blur: the endless draughts of eggnog, the obscure calypso Christmas 12-inches on repeat, the endless pre-gift-exchange Christmas Day repast at grandmother’s house, flung fistfuls of wrapping paper, our cats eating tinsel off the tree. But since my parents are unreformed pack rats, these cards—these windows into other people’s worlds—lived triple lives: initially as welcome surprises, secondly as ostensive decoration, and ultimately as provisional talking points. It was not unusual for me, as a curious youth, to stumble upon one or another staged, mawkish late 1970s/early 1980 snapshot within a faded card in a desk drawer, regarded by the unseeing smiles of total strangers. These people always seemed to be people my parents used to know socially; every story seemed to begin with a skeletal biography and wind down sadly and wistfully with a move to another state, a gradual loss of connection, the accidental, eternal silences adult life engenders.

I could not know then that decades later I would re-enact similar scenes with my own son, that my parents would bequeath to me their need to hold fast to holiday memories, or perhaps the need to harness the residual, accumulated warmth of Christmases past to ward off the cold of modern life. If you ask me what was written in any of these cards, I couldn’t tell you, but in memory I can trace curves and curlicues, feel love boiling up out of clustered phrases, feel the irreplaceable, inexplicable thrill of knowing that miles and oceans distant, someone remembered, and thought of, and missed me enough to seal some parts of themselves in an envelope and send that selfness to me. That’s what a holiday card is, what it represents, where it’s capable of transporting a recipient in the present, and the future—and robotic e-cards and anemic catchall Facebook greetings can’t even come close. ?

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