Laying Our Cards On the Table
Sending Holiday Greetings Has Evolved, but Endured

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, December 1, 2005

Ah, Christmas, the season when an exchange of greetings can be as fraught with decisions as an exchange of gifts.

At one end of the spectrum is Andy Bleck, a United Parcel Service driver from Silver Spring who still follows a cherished family tradition of making dozens of elaborate Christmas cards by hand, just as his father and uncles once did. At the other end is trend forecaster Gerald Celente of Rhinebeck, N.Y., who hasn't sent a holiday card in 15 years.

In between are those who buy their cards and write a personal note on each, and those who just scrawl their names at the bottom. Some dispatch humorous/serious computer-generated newsletters recapping the year's highlights (substitute "tedious" and "boastful" where applicable), while others just send out an annual picture of the kids playing at the beach or a family portrait of everyone (including the dog) in matching garb. There are those who seek to "put the Christ back in Christmas" with religious cards and those who prefer the secular and profane.

But it is interesting in these frazzled times to acknowledge the staying power of a tradition born in London in 1843, when Henry Cole produced 1,000 copies of a John Callcott Horsley lithograph of a family gathered around a holiday table. The message of that first card was simple: "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You."

Neither the advent of e-mail tidings in the late 1990s nor postage increases nor even a fear of anthrax-laced letters in 2001 has greatly stemmed the annual flood of holiday cards. Though the numbers have fluctuated over the years, paper cards are holding their own.

In 1987, the average American household received 29 pieces of Christmas mail, said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan. By 1994, the number dropped to 23. In 2002 it bounced back to 27, but a year later fell to fewer than 20 cards per household. In 2004 it rose to 21.6 cards. And this year? It is expected to remain stable at about 21.5 cards, he said.

The 2002 spike occurred despite a two-cent hike in the cost of a first-class stamp that June, McKiernan said. "Then when the rate was stable the next year, volume went down. Go figure. Last year postage was still 37 cents and the numbers went up."

Although independent statistics are hard to find, Hallmark -- which bestrides the greeting card market with a 50 percent share -- calls Christmas its biggest holiday by far, with the majority of its business done in the fourth quarter.

The company predicts "pretty stable, pretty flat" industry-wide sales of 2 billion holiday cards this year, up from 1.9 billion last year, said Deidre Parkes, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

And there is no corporate fretting over e-cards, which are vastly outnumbered by paper cards by a ratio of 20 to 1, after peaking in the late 1990s, according to Parkes.

Nonetheless, to cover their bases, Hallmark and mega-competitor American Greetings have staked out territory in the e-mail market with dancing reindeer and singing elves.

"E-cards are a fun and casual communication. But especially at Christmas, what people want to see is a bit more serious in nature," said Parkes. Paper cards "are keepsakes. People display them, they share them with other family members. You know the moms who save every card they ever got from their kids."

Barbara Miller is spokeswoman for the Washington-based Greeting Card Association, which represents 300 card publishers. She said the "vast majority" of Christmas cards are personal, not business-related. "We see card-sending falling into two very broad categories: in celebration of the religious holiday, where we are seeing a little more Christian and inspirational imagery. . . . For secular cards, snowmen seem to be big this year, sophisticated or understated imagery, a wreath, a single reindeer, a star of Bethlehem."

Miller noted a shift toward holiday ecumenism, with "a slight increase in mixed-faith cards that celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah." This year, in fact, both holidays fall on Dec. 25.

Those in the paper card camp split naturally into factions: purists who make their own cards and those who buy commercial greetings.

Indeed, all the talk about trends in mass-produced cards matters little to Andy Bleck, who has been crafting homemade ones since childhood.

His wife, Kim, was baffled by the tradition when they married 10 years ago. "My first reaction was, 'Are you nuts? I am the most uncreative person in the world. Why can't we just buy cards?' " she recalled. "Although I bought some to send out to my side of the family, once we had our first child, I said, 'Let me try to get into this, because it's not going away.' "

Last year they turned on the Christmas music and spent hours making 70 pop-up cards featuring pictures of the kids, Nate, 8, and Samantha, 3. The idea came from a craft magazine, Kim said. "I'm better on the computer so I designed and put it together. I made Andy do the cutting, I glued, and Nate did stickers."

Then there are the newsletter partisans. Never mind that they're often the butt of jokes about the self-important minutiae they feel compelled to share every December. For these people, a brief note under the store-bought sentiment -- never mind a mere signature -- is woefully inadequate.

Cheryl Arvidson, a communications staffer at the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers in Washington, is preparing yet again to send a chatty Christmas communique to 100 of her nearest and dearest. "I think people really get a kick out of them. It's a good way of saying, here's what's going on with me and my family, the death of my storied cat, Dashiell."

Those who have forsaken paper greetings altogether in favor of Internet letters also fall into camps: those who art-direct their own creations using elaborately styled prose and digital family photos, and those who fall back on ordinary e-mail.

Trend researcher Celente, whose business is to forecast societal swings, can't fully explain why paper cards survive and thrive in this age of instant messaging. "Cards were something of a communications thing when you hadn't heard from someone in a long time. Now you just get on the Internet and the cell phone. It's time, it's money, the message isn't there like it used to be. It's become a chore."

Actually, those who can endure the inevitable criticism that e-Christmas greetings are more like junk mail than an electronic holiday hug are turning to cyber-missives offered without charge at dozens of Web sites. Type "free e-mail Christmas cards" on a search engine and scroll through sites that include nonprofit organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and independent sites such as Wicked Moon, run by an Englishman living in Australia.

They may be impersonal, but they are often charming or amusing, given the presence of electronic jingle bells, cutesy penguins or raunched-up lyrics to favorite holiday carols.

Chase Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum in Washington, was amazed by the reaction to an American Greetings Thanksgiving e-mail he sent two weeks ago depicting a vampy she-turkey belting out a variation of the disco anthem "I Will Survive." In less than 24 hours, he heard back from 30 of his 60 recipients around the world.

"They responded to the hilarity of the card and then added comments about getting together or missing me or whatever," said Rynd. "At the risk of having my mother and my grandmother and my father all spin in their graves, this year I am going to forgo the arduous task of handwriting Noel card messages and envelopes, throw self-discipline to the winds, and pick out an e-card that suits me, my personality and my friends."

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