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An elegy for the Christmas card

Does the holiday tradition of sending Christmas cards still fulfill a valuable social role?

Illustration by Ainsley Romero

This December, Robert Martin will travel to San Diego and become young again. That’s the plan, anyway — one that formed earlier this year when the former BYU student had lunch with two of his brothers in Provo.

They hadn’t celebrated Christmas as a family since their mom and dad died in the ’90s. “I really think we need to start doing this again,” Rob, now 66, told them. As the oldest of eight, he felt obligated to honor the way things used to be; the way things should be. Starting by reviving a family tradition.

Growing up in Kansas City, Rob and his siblings would slice construction paper with safety scissors and sticky their fingers with Elmer’s in the name of assembling handmade Christmas cards. They’ve done so ever since, but not all together. Life has scattered the Martins across the West, making their holiday tradition hard to maintain.

But Rob believes it can unite generations, can socialize the young into the family lore. They’ll gather and tell stories about going to the Lake of the Ozarks as kids. They’ll laugh about the time cousin Donnie nailed the door to the outhouse shut with Uncle Ab inside. Or the time Rob’s brother, David, picked up a stray cat that turned out to be a skunk. All the while knowing that beneath the joy of reliving the past, an uncertain future for their family hobby simmers.

For many, Christmas cards have outlived their utility. With the proliferation of video chatting, texting, blogging and social media, there’s no longer the need to keep friends and family updated in a yearly letter.

In the early 2000s, Americans mailed about two billion Christmas cards annually, according to data provided to MarketWatch by Hallmark. By 2015, those numbers had plummeted to 1.18 billion (although over the last three years there has been a steady uptick).

The same factors causing their overall decline, Rob insists, make them more important than ever — and could explain their recent resurgence. The niche they once occupied is a niche no more, but they still offer something essential — and rare.

Depending on how you define a Christmas card, they could date back to 15th-century Germany or early 20th-century Kansas City. Their precise origin, however, isn’t as important as recognizing the many modern forms Christmas cards have taken.

There’s the single photo with the “Season’s greetings from the Smiths!” caption; there’s the family newsletter; there’s the greeting card variety; and there’s the homemade type Rob makes from construction paper and glitter.

Rob’s mom, Mary, used to tack the variety of cards their family received onto green or red ribbons with double-sided Scotch tape, then hang the ribbons up on the wall near the family’s Christmas tree.

Back then they numbered around 100. Rob keeps that tradition going, but the numbers have dwindled to between 50 and 75.

Victoria Venturi, founder and CEO of Portland-based greeting cardmaker Paper Epiphanies, says Christmas cards still account for about 10% to 15% of her wholesale card sales, but there’s been a definite decline in generic boxed Christmas card sales. “Thirty years ago, seasonal was king,” she says. “Greeting card companies waited all year for Q4. And that’s just really not the case anymore.”

Today’s Christmas card consumers, rather, are looking for something nongeneric, something very personal. “We find that our consumers are purchasing with somebody specifically in mind,” she says. “I think that’s where we see the big shift.” Where social media allows — even encourages — presenting a facade to the world, Christmas cards can be a space for sincerity and vulnerability.

Their physical presence is one aspect of that argument, even for folks like 65-year-old Eileen Hansen, who admits that over the years her Christmas card exchanges have largely succumbed to the influence of phone calls and email. “I like the tangible card in my hand,” she says. “It’s just much more personal than an email that I could copy and paste.” It reminds her of her youth.

When she would run up the driveway from her mailbox and plop down at her kitchen table to enjoy the day’s surprise reminder from some faraway person that they’re thinking about her. “It just makes me feel like someone cares,” she says.

Alona Perlin, 53, feels the same way. She lives alone, aside from her Shih Tzu, Princess, in Brooklyn. She sends Christmas cards describing their adventures every year, and getting cards in return helps her feel less alone. “Somebody’s thinking of you,” she says. “And that’s a very uplifting feeling, that they’re taking the time to write to you and pick out a card for you.”

Rob, Eileen and Alona all joined a Facebook group dedicated to sharing Christmas cards with new people, along with about 1,700 others. Most members of the group are middle-age or older. That helps explain why Rob’s so excited for his family gathering in San Diego this December. It’ll feel for his family, he hopes, like Christmas felt for him as a kid — warm and cheery and hopeful and new amid so many reasons to feel jaded.

Rob wants his nieces and nephews and their descendants to recognize, at the very least, the potential of Christmas cards. He wants them to see what they can accomplish when done right. How they can connect with their past over red and green construction paper, with their memories of mom hanging the cards around the tree and dad reading the Nativity story from the family Bible on Christmas Eve.

Many of the people who’ve joined the Facebook group, including Rob, Eileen and Alona, are looking for that same thing: connection. It feels like we’re always busy, Rob agrees; like we’re always distracted and lonely.

But, as Alona observed, sending Christmas cards takes effort. It requires writing, printing, buying, making, mailing. It forces us to do something as annoying to our silicon sensibilities as licking envelopes and visiting the post office. Rather than a bland slab of paper, that’s what you’re really sending when you send a Christmas card: your time. And that’s one holiday gift in short supply.

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.