By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A01
It's the middle of December, and Peg Willingham wants to know: Where are all the Christmas cards?
"I've only gotten about four," said the Falls Church mother as she tabulated the meager pile in the little red basket that serves as her card caddy each year. "Normally, I'd have a pretty full basket by now -- at least 15 or 20 cards. I'm trying not to take it too personally."
She shouldn't. Lots of Washington area residents report that this season is shaping up as a ho-ho-hum year for holiday cards, at least the kind you can collect in a little red basket. Even the post office has noticed a significant thinning of the usual torrent of festive envelopes.
For the first two weeks of December, said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Michael Woods, "we are seeing about an 11 percent decrease in first-class cancellations from last year, which is a good proxy for the number of cards and letters coming through the system."
And although last-minute mailers are still adding to all those waiting baskets, wicker sleighs and refrigerator doors, there are signs that plenty of people are giving hard-copy greetings a complete pass this time around.
"We see a 10 to 15 percent decline in the overall volume of mailed paper greeting cards this year," said Neil Hendry of Datamonitor, a New York-based retail analysis firm. "There are two principal reasons: technology and the economy."
Observers say a perfect winter storm may have formed to suppress this year's holiday mail surge: an unemployment rate that makes a roll of 44-cent stamps one more difficult expense for many people (and adds up to a bleak Christmas letter for friends and family); increasingly popular and cheap or free Internet alternatives such as e-cards and Facebook; and heightened environmental concerns that have some people weighing the carbon footprint of all those cardboard season's greetings.
"It's crazy; we've gotten hardly any cards at all," said Jim Nocera, a production supervisor for a downtown Washington nonprofit group. In previous years, the front door of Nocera's house would have been nearly covered with taped-up cards by now. This season, only the top row is filled. "We expect them with every mail, but they never come."
The cardmakers' trade group says it sees nothing amiss, based on an informal survey of Hallmark, American Greetings and other industry leaders. "It might be down slightly, but generally speaking, it seems relatively the same as last year," said Barbara Miller, spokeswoman for the Greeting Card Association. "But we're talking about 2 billion cards here. You have to see something major before the needle even moves."
But retailers have a different view, and they see a shift away from cards. Although mega-card seller Wal-Mart wouldn't comment on sales for the season, Joshua Thomas, a spokesman for Target, said his company isn't selling as many as usual. "Sales of boxed-set holiday cards were not as strong as last year," he said, adding that the most inexpensive bulk packs of cards are holding their own. "We're definitely seeing the trend of consumers going online to fulfill their holiday card needs."
Area printers also say they have seen the demand for custom cards fall as law firms and other businesses trim the trimmings this season. "It's probably off by 20 percent," said John Marmas, co-owner of Agile Printing in the District.
When Lisa McLish compared notes with a group of parents from Lafayette Elementary School in the Chevy Chase section of the District last weekend, they realized they were all being stiffed by the letter carrier. "No one had gotten hardly any cards at all, and it was two weeks after Thanksgiving," McLish said. "I'm sending them, but I know some people who have decided not to this year."
Beth Charbonneau, 35, a psychotherapist from College Park, decided to opt out of sending cards this year. With a busy practice, a 2-year-old daughter and an onslaught of visiting relatives expected to arrive in days, Charbonneau reluctantly swapped a holiday greetings model dating back to the 1800s for this four-sentence posting on Facebook: "Dear Everyone, Please consider this your holiday card for the year. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule, and so on. Sorry to be a lame friend but, really, I'm just not Superwoman. I admit defeat on holiday cards."
Charbonneau said Facebook provided an irresistible alternative to the time-consuming ritual of buying, addressing, personalizing and mailing the 30 to 40 cards with family photo that she usually sends. For one thing, her family and friends no longer need to wait for the annual photo of her daughter because they can now see the countless snapshots she posts online every month.
Far from accusing Charbonneau of succumbing to the Social Media Network That Stole Christmas, most of her friends applauded, she said. "I like this card . . . consider yours this reply," responded one, closing the yearly greetings loop in eight words and about 10 seconds.
Robin Siegel has found a way to split the difference between techno and traditional by dividing her mailing list. For years, she started before Thanksgiving and spent weeks prepping and posting more than 150 cards, along with her holiday letter and photos. Now she e-mails the letter, with photos embedded, to about 250 computer-literate friends and family. Her older correspondents still get an old-fashioned envelope.
"Just the ones for whom it's way too late to learn to open a PDF file," said Siegel, a former conservator at the National Geographic Society.
Siegel also sends a hard copy to anyone who still sends her a card, although she, too, has seen a falloff at the inbox this year. "I've gotten half of what I normally would."
Meanwhile, Willingham's nearly empty red basket makes her only more determined to get busy with her own stack of envelopes. For her, the physical pleasures of the paper, the photos and the canceled stamps are all too precious to turn over to the cold efficiency of the electronic age. She appreciates the e-mailed holiday letters she's gotten in lieu of a physical card this year, but she said sitting at a computer to read them feels more like work than Christmas pleasure.
"A lot of my friends aren't sending real cards this year," said Willingham, who works for a medical research firm in Rockville. "I suspect every year it will decline, just like the rest of Western civilization."