The Fading Art of Christmas Card Giving

Downtown caldwell lights


“Jean!  Don’t take the Christmas cards before I get a chance to read them.”  That’s my mom scolding ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, etc. -year-old me.  I was one of those kids that went Christmas-crazy.  My wise mother found ways to channel my youthful enthusiasm for the season, she planned all sorts of  projects: baking, sewing, making ornaments, crafting wall hangings, making and wrapping gifts.  The constant over all those years was the Christmas card wall. This was our own original tradition.

The Christmas cards became my medium to create.  I kept watch for the mail, waited for my parens to read the newly delivered greetings (if I resisted the temptation of ripping them open first),  at which point I’d put  them up in a decorative zig-zag pattern on the wood pillars dividing our living room from the hallway.  Here was  my artistic and festive display that signaled that Christmas was indeed upon us.  The more cards, the greater my repertoire of colors and designs to draw from. In my mind, the photo cards were duds.  I favored the ornate: the sparkling gold, silver, and bright red beauties, the quaint village snow scenes, or mysterious dark skies over Bethlehem with richly dressed magi gazing at a magnificent star.

With time, I looked forward to having my own Christmas card list and sending cheerful greetings to friends and family. As a poor newlywed, the stamp price was indeed a sacrifice but this was my once-a-year chance to show my far flung loved ones that my husband and I were thinking of them. I realized that there was more than just the addressing, stamping, and mailing.  There was the yearly quandary over culling the list.  I never crossed someone off the list just because they didn’t send me a card.  Mostly, I just lost track of addresses, people moved, or I didn’t want to guilt-trip the remiss into feeling like they had to send me a card.

And then it wasn’t enough to send a card with simply “Best Wishes” or “Much Love” and a signature.  No, there should be a brief handwritten note, a more personal touch.  And I do mean brief, this was before we owned a computer. Eventually, we acquired a clunky Apple desktop with a word processing program, and I joined the trend of composing a yearly family newsletter; sometimes with a family picture  enclosed, and always stuffed in a glittery  decorative card so they wouldn’t be “duds”.  Eventually,  I compressed the family news portion and started writing and sending stories of the season. A few were my own fictional stories of the season, others were based on family events. Some were essays of personal reflection. It was a holiday blog via snail mail before blogs were ever blogged.

Ever being one to increase the interest level,  I began creating  handmade Christmas Cards as well; inspired by  the stamping and scrapbooking trend.  It was fun to get together with friends and share ideas and be motivated by each other to make our own special greeting cards. Does this all sound way too complicated? (Yes, I do have a tendency to over-do things as my imagination and expectations get a bit out of control.) But my Christmas card obsession was leading me toward my inner creator.

Down one path came my writing, down another, the embellishment of the Christmas cards inspired the budding photographer in me. For many years we lived in Alaska with myriad opportunities to take photographs of spectacular scenery and beautiful wintery vistas. With the advent of digital photography and the acquisition of a great camera, I had hundreds of pictures begging to be shared. I began using my photos not just for Christmas cards but for greeting cards of all kinds.  This was a lot easier than stamping and paper crafting and for me a great deal more satisfying.

Gradually, the stack of Christmas cards received by mail diminished. The advent of email greetings, tweets, and facebook shout-outs took a huge bite out of Christmas card traffic. Then we moved out of Alaska. This sea-change swamped my life and I had to let go of sending Christmas cards . I am now lost to most of my former correspondents and there are no cards to tape up on any  wall.

In 1843 Sir Henry Cole invited his artist friend, John Horsley, to create the first Christmas card which they printed and sold for one shilling each.  Cards could be mailed for a penny.  Christmas card giving spread to the United States and became a very popular tradition for sending a bit of Christmas cheer and the sharing of goodwill and peace. Dare I say, the pre-computer age facebook?  No, I think not. Likely, no one used Christmas cards for political rants or for determining which latte flavor defines them as a person.

Recently, an email from my best friend from high school (a faithful Christmas card sender) revealed that she is facing a second battle with cancer. This sobering news and my desire to comfort her reignited my desire to share a bit of personally  crafted holiday cheer in hard copy format. I still have many megabytes and counting of photos to share and more importantly people to reach out to.

Time is more and more scarce and valuable,  a dizzying array of entertainments clamor for our attention.  Perhaps resurrecting a graceful tradition of a slower lifestyle  would calm our over-stimulated brains and put us in touch with our inner resources.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stuff this essay in a Christmas card, and mail it.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!


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