It's begun already--just a flurry so far, but soon there will be a blizzard of brightly colored envelopes. And amid the news of friends and relatives we hear from just this once each year will be more and more glad tidings from people we haven't met and don't expect to.

Last December, an investment company was one of the first to wish our family "a Season Filled With Beautiful Moments and Cherished Memories." A law firm took a longer view, hoping that the "Peace and Joy of This Holiday Season" would stay with us "throughout the year." DK, the book publisher, supplemented its colorful card that wished us "Happy Holidays" with a recipe for Bolo rei (Portuguese Epiphany bread). There were cards from worthy causes we'd contributed to (with, alas, fund-raising appeals rather than appealing food) and cheerful greetings from catalogue companies we'd given business to, from industry giant L.L. Bean to its lesser-known competitor, Plow & Hearth.

Then there are the cards from those we have met, but whose Christmas list we didn't expect to make--our daughter's school, our real estate agent, the roofing company. And each computer-generated address label brings the heartwarming knowledge that somewhere in the company files there's a reminder to "add the Sellerses to the Christmas card database."

As tradesmen and charities have begun to outnumber friends in my living room, I find myself wondering what the point of this exercise is. If fixing our flashing was reason enough for the roofer to send me a card last year, should I expect one this December from the guy at Roto-Rooter, whom I paid handsomely on Labor Day to relieve us of a far more pungent and memorable leak in the cellar? And what if he does send us one? It seems almost uncharitable to treat company cards like junk mail and throw them away. But I can't quite bring myself to center them on the front hall table with the greetings from family and friends. So most end up high on the bookcase, gilding the aura of seasonal bounty without broadcasting their origins.

Fearful of running out of display space, I called Plow & Hearth and spoke to Peter Rice, the company's president. You don't know me, I said, but you sent me a Christmas card last year. Why me?

It turns out that of the 2 million or so people who regularly receive its catalogue, I'm one of Plow & Hearth's 60,000 nearest and dearest customers. The cards, which come without any promotional message or special offers, are part of his company's recent efforts to recognize loyal customers. And, Rice told me, it's fun. (My mind flashed to the evenings of writing and addressing and stamping that lie ahead, and I wondered just how much "fun" 60,000 cards could be.) What's more, they're effective: According to Rice's son, Pete, who works in the marketing department, Christmas card receivers become even more loyal P&H customers.

Christmas cards are a hot trend among catalogue and Internet companies, the elder Rice told me. It's their way of trying to overcome the lack of face-to-face contact with customers. So get ready for more cards, and add the Christmas greeting to the list of holiday traditions ruined by mass production and commercialization.

Except that, in this case, it's actually just business as usual.

The man generally given credit for the creation of the Christmas card is Sir Henry Cole, who recognized in the early 1840s that the speed and reliability of Britain's new penny post offered a more efficient means of continuing an age-old custom--paying a personal visit to friends to convey the compliments of the season. According to George Buday's "History of the Christmas Card," in 1843 Cole, who later became founding director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, commissioned 1,000 lithograph copies of a happy Dickensian scene: three generations, feasting on plum pudding and raising their glasses to an absent friend.

Cole's idea quickly took off--on both sides of the Atlantic. An article published in the Times of London in 1883 celebrated the trend, saying that "this wholesome custom has been more frequently the means of ending strifes, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family and neighbourly ties." But the cards weren't reserved entirely for personal messages. One mid-19th century card, bidding "A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year," advertised an Albany, N.Y., business: "Pease's great Varety [sic] Store in the Temple of Fancy."

There's always been a mercenary aspect to the seasonal festivities and holiday visiting, beginning with the first riotous pagan celebrations that marked the solstice. In the Middle Ages, peasants would invade landowners' houses, often demanding midwinter bounty, writes Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas." Later, servants and tradespeople traveled house to house offering the season's greetings, sometimes to cement a business relationship, sometimes to collect their Christmas "boxes" (the origin of the British Boxing Day). Perhaps I should be grateful that the Rices, the book publisher and the investment company sent cards instead of appearing on my doorstep full of gratitude and good cheer.

My family receives a few handmade cards each year, and a small number of cards enclosing letters that truly strengthen family and neighborly ties. But, along with the company card, comes the mass-produced card, the Xeroxed letter, the printed signature and the e-mail greeting, all of which sacrifice intimacy in pursuit of efficiency.

Still, I'm glad to get them.

Reflecting on the rules of reciprocity governing traditional holiday card exchange, I called Pete Rice again, curious to know whether his company ever receives cards back from its nearest and dearest.

A few, Pete told me. And will I be getting one from you this year? I asked, trying to remember just how loyal a customer I'd been. I will, he assured me.

Now that I know Pete and his dad a bit, I'd hate to think they would delete my name from their database over something as trivial as business. Next year, perhaps I'll send them a card, too, now that I've entered the Rices in my database--right after "Real estate, agent" and just before "Roofer, leak."

Frances Stead Sellers is the deputy editor of Outlook.