It’s easy to get cynical about holiday cards. There certainly is a lot of pressure to send them for all the wrong reasons: Because the person sent one to us. Because it is a way to fulfill a social obligation without having to really relate to someone. Because it will make someone mad if we don’t. Because it gets Mom off our back if we do. Sheesh! As if the holidays didn’t have enough stress! The task of buying, signing, stuffing, stamping, and getting the stack of cards to the mailbox can feel like one more blankety-blank thing to do. If that weren’t enough, the card company that urges us to “care enough to send the very best” has brainwashed a whole generation into thinking that unless the card carries their logo, it doesn’t count.
And yet people still do send out cards. I was curious. If cards are merely a holdover from another time, if people find the task of sending them onerous, if it’s just another expense and chore in an already expensive and overscheduled month, why do people do it? An informal survey of my students, almost-adult kids, and friends yielded some surprising, and tender, answers. I was prepared for complaints. What I got were thoughtful affirmations of family, friendship, and mental health. Yes, mental health. The warm stories people tell about what it means to them to send and receive cards are stories of people at their best.
Many of the older people I interviewed treasure holiday cards as part of the magic of Christmas. Cards are a connection to the way things were when they were kids. Brought up in the days of paper, pens, and stamps, they don’t quite get the appeal of email and e-cards, no matter how cute the animation. Cards lining the mantle or posted on the family bulletin board are tangible evidence of enduring relationships with people they’ve known and cared about over years. Family brag letters (regardless of how embarrassed kids feel about them) help them stay in touch with growing families of friends and relatives far away. To them, cards say “I haven’t forgotten you.” “You are important in my life.” “I care about you.”
One of my friends is always surrounded by kids and chaos. “Sending cards is my private holiday ritual,” she told me. “Once the tree is up, I reserve a few hours one evening just for me. While the kids do their homework in their rooms, I sit by the lighted tree with a hot cup of tea and get cards ready for the mail. That’s when I connect with the spirit of the holiday.” Quiet inner conversations with the many people on her card list are a kind of meditation on friendship.
“Cards are a way to thank everyone who has made my life better, or easier, or richer in some way,” said another friend. “It’s too easy to take people for granted. The holidays are a time to remember folks like the paperboy who makes sure the paper gets on the porch, the mail carrier who remembers the names of my kids, the beautician who gives my elderly mother such good attention, and the person who took on a task at work when I was overwhelmed.” Cards for her are a way to take stock of all the ways good people make her life go smoothly and to express appreciation.
Younger adults tell me they like cards too. “I send them because I like to get them,” said one of the students in a class I teach at a local college. “You know. You look in the mailbox every day and it’s like getting a present when there’s a card in there.” I know what she means. Getting cards throughout the month of December is a refreshing change from the usual stack of bills, credit card offers, flyers, and catalogues that fill my mailbox. When we send cards, we give our friends a break from the usual routine and give them reason to smile.
“I actually write letters on the ones I send,” said my son, the English major. “There’s something really personal about it. No matter how carefully you write an email, it looks like you just dashed it off. A letter says that you took the time.” True. Emails are a wonderful way to hold an ongoing conversation, to keep people in the loop, to stay in touch in short bursts of information and response. But a hand-written letter requires reflection and care.
“I love going into the card shop and finding just the right card to send to each special person in my life. I can’t afford to buy everyone I care about a gift but I can get a card that speaks to each person specially.” This from a grad student who would love to buy presents but is barely scraping by on a research assistantship. He’s found a way to be thoughtful without breaking the bank. My guess is that his carefully chosen cards mean a whole lot more to most of the people on his list than the typical poor-student gift of another candle or calendar or vibrating back massager.
Several people shared creative ways that their extended families stay connected over distances. One family is geographically divided with a large group on the East Coast and another on the West. Each year, someone on each coast takes or collects pictures of the family on his or her side of the country and uses Photoshop to make a creative collage. It has become a friendly competition for which side of the family makes the most creative, outrageous, fun, or just plain gorgeous presentation. Everyone gets to see how others have grown and changed. It keeps everyone in the warm family circle despite long stretches between visits.
Another family writes a newsy round-robin letter that is started at Thanksgiving by the grandparents and is sent to each of their five children in turn. Each sibling adds to the letter and sends it along so that it ends up back with grandma and gramps by Christmas. They then scan it into the computer and send the whole thing to everyone in the family. With six family units in five states, they’ve found a way to have a family holiday project in which everyone can have a part.
I very much doubt that the people I surveyed were thinking about how they were contributing to their own and other people’s mental health as they dropped cards in the mailbox. But keeping in touch with a network of family and friends through thoughtful cards does just that. Every card sent and received is a deposit in the emotional bank account of both sender and receiver. One student said it all much more simply. “It’s just a way of being nice to other people. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?”