At a recent second-grade performance of The Nutcracker in Richmond, Virginia, two mothers fretted over Christmas cards. One, busy with a sick child, a limping dog, and multiple command performances of The Nutcracker, had not yet picked hers out. The other, a business executive who travels out of town at least twice a week, predicted she would be lucky to get hers addressed and stamped by New Year’s. The possibility of skipping Christmas cards never entered the conversation. Despite there being many ways these days of extending holiday cheer that do not require stamp-licking or keeping track of a peripatetic cousin’s physical mailing address, these two busy women were determined to connect with friends and family through cards delivered by mail.
To some, holiday cards may seem as outdated as the horse and buggy, but these women are not alone in clinging to the tradition. Americans still purchase approximately 1.6 billion Christmas cards a year. What about this old-fashioned tradition appeals to so many? And is that appeal compelling enough to survive the conveniences of the digital era?
The Birth of the Christmas Card
Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th. Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.”
Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity. A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on. By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm. As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.
As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.
Not all manufacturers were as concerned with quality. Many of them relied on trite and overly sentimental images to decorate their greetings. In 1885, The Decorator and Furnisher magazine criticized the industry for its ubiquitous imaginings of “pantaletted young ones” singing in snowstorms and “angels floating in mid-air bearing a babe.” Such tiresome subjects, the article lamented, created “no agreeable sensations.” Also troublesome were the poor production values. That same year, The Art Amateur magazine faulted a British manufacturer for offering a card that featured the image of a cherub whose head was “too intangibly connected with her body even for a disembodied spirit.”
Industry critics predicted that the American public would soon tire of Christmas cards. But then, in the early 1900s, improvements in image reproduction technology allowed the greeting-card market to surge to new heights. In 1900, The British Medical Journal applauded a new series of Christmas cards with “platino-panel reproductions” that resembled photographic prints. The variety of subjects featured on the new cards also increased—sporting themes, landscapes, and patriotic drawings of men in regimental uniforms.
As technology continued to improve, holiday-card manufacturing became an increasingly lucrative—and competitive—venture. By the late 1920s, the industry employed more than 5,000 American workmen at as many as 40 factories. Each year’s new designs were produced by well-paid artisans and closely guarded to prevent imitation by rival firms.
With so much money at stake, the Christmas card industry’s sales tactics grew more assertive. In 1928, Samuel Grafton of The North American Review described how, as the holiday season approached, publicity teams were “constantly at work popularizing the handsomely etched expression of goodwill.” Their mission was to convince people that this relatively new custom was ages old and to make “you think yourself a feverish yellow cur if you do not invest each December in seven dollars’ worth of assorted glue and ink and paper.” Grafton suggested that consumers were “behaving like sheep” by letting themselves be bamboozled into falling for the industry’s manipulation. Although Grafton—alongside other critics—made valid points about the unseemly commercialization of the holidays, consumers maintained an affection for the season and its attendant cards.
The Art of the Christmas Card
Christmas cards are, at their core, an artistic tradition. In 1930, the New York Public Library hosted an exhibition to highlight the variety of techniques used by American artists to express good tidings, including etching, wood engraving, linoleum cutting, and lithography. Although not all cards rose to the level of Great Art, the exhibit’s tone was celebratory. As the library’s curator of prints, Frank Weitenkampf, wrote: “These little products of occasional graphic art can be enjoyed both as personal expressions in art and technique, and as happy solutions of the problem of pictorial emphasis of good wishes.”
Sentiment also helped the tradition take root. The year after the New York Public Library exhibit, The American Journal of Nursing discussed the pleasures of receiving holiday greetings. “Everyone has within her life and experience certain things which represent her to her friends,” the author writes. “The card is a sketch ‘from life’ of an expression of these experiences, characteristics, or interests in another’s Christmas remembrance that makes the latter a joy to receive.” And if one felt squeamish about the commercialism of it all, homemade cards were an option: “The thought must come from oneself, since no artist can very well decide which experiences, characteristics, or interests are worth sharing with friends.” (Not that anyone should embark on that road lightly. The article warns: “An artist friend whose Christmas cards are always an especial delight finds that no sooner are the cards for one Christmas in the mails than she is haunted by fears for the next.”)
The practice of sending cards became further entrenched in American culture when it was embraced as a charitable gesture. By the 1940s, many nonprofits were raising money by selling special sets of Christmas cards that carried their institution’s logo or an image inspired by its mission. The most widely known use of holiday cards for fundraising is likely the UNICEF annual holiday card sale, which raises money to provide at-risk children around the world with essential services, such as vaccines and clean water. UNICEF’s first card, issued in 1949, featured an image painted by a seven-year-old Czechoslovakian girl whose village had received food and medicine from UNICEF in the wake of World War II. Now, professional artists, who receive no royalties or payment for their work, donate images for the cards.
Perhaps most importantly, buying holiday cards may satisfy deep-seated subconscious needs. In 1947’s “Art and Cultural Symbolism: A Psychological Study of Greeting Cards,” William E. Henry analyzed cards as tools people used to convey “feelings and wishes” to one another through “symbols which stand for these feelings.” In a communal context, Henry noted, Christmas cards are widely understood to represent “a formal celebration of ideas of personal warmth and home feelings, visions of the return to a protected childhood status, and an opportunity to formally assuage parent-directed hostilities.” His study detailed how the choices consumers make in selecting cards often result from their individual desires and personalities. For one buyer, a card may satisfy “unmet affiliation” needs and in another bolster “feelings of self-respect.” In other words, sending cards is not only a gesture of goodwill but also an act of expression for oneself.
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By the end of the 20th century, the task of sending holiday cards remained largely relegated to women, many of whom carried a new array of personal and professional responsibilities. As noted in Micaela di Leonardo’s 1987 study, women were increasingly busy dealing with pressures from work, caring for elderly relatives, and attending to “their own desires for freedom.” Were there enough hours in the day to continue sending Christmas cards?
Not surprisingly, some card buyers decided the answer was no. Interestingly, though, di Leonardo’s research revealed that breaking free of the cards did not necessarily increase happiness or enjoyment of the holidays. Some reported feeling guilty and defensive about failing to keep in touch with extended family over the holidays. The tradition had too firm a hold to let go without consequences.
The greeting-card industry adjusted to the changing dynamic. New printing methods allowed mass-produced cards to be easily customized with family names, photographs, and news updates. Senders no longer needed to spend precious time composing notes or signing their names over and over. Those who owned a home printer did not even have to address the envelopes by hand. While this assembly-line-style approach arguably defeated the purpose of sending cards in the first place, at least the job was getting done.
Manufacturers also reached out to new audiences, expanding their offerings beyond the standard Christmas or generic holiday cards. Hanukkah and Kwanzaa cards became widely available, and there are now cards targeted to a variety of niche audiences, including, ironically enough, atheists who celebrate Christmas.
The Future of Holiday Cards
But new challenges to the tradition continue to arise. Thanks to the Internet, advances in software, and the proliferation of digital photography, consumers today have a host of efficient and inexpensive options for keeping in touch. Highly personalized cards can be produced with a few clicks of a mouse and emailed without a bothersome trip to the post office. Or you can forget about the cards altogether and remain guilt free by reaching out to loved ones through social media or various other forms of digital communication.
While many are holding on to the tradition of sending physical cards, it is fair to question how long it will remain a part of our culture. The answer, of course, ultimately rests in the hands of young people. The coming generation will have to decide for itself if the time, energy, and expense of the gesture offer enough benefits to justify the exercise.
The Greeting Card Association is optimistic. According to its research, “The tradition of giving greeting cards as a meaningful expression of personal affection for another person is still being deeply ingrained in today’s youth.” Holiday cards undoubtedly hold a certain enduring charm. Even cynic Samuel Grafton acknowledged that there is something pleasing in how the custom evokes “the spirit in which the old kings sent out their heralds at Yuletime.” Nearly ninety years after his warning that we are succumbing to the wiles of the Christmas-card industry, that spirit may well be hearty enough to keep the tradition viable.