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Public-relations consultant Sabina Wex sent over 100 cards this year with wishes for a vaccine inside.

Jessica Lee/The Globe and Mail

On the back of her Christmas postcard, Stephanie Ip included a telling nod to the year that was – an infographic titled “2020 Pandemic in Review.”

Here, the Vancouver journalist documented life in lockdown. The international trips she cancelled (two), the number of food deliveries she and her fiancé got to their door (26), and the long list of shows they binge-watched.

“I don’t think most people like to brag about how much TV they’ve watched, but 2020′s a little different,” said Ip, 33. “Everyone’s getting delivery, everyone’s watching something on Netflix.”

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Other 2020 highlights included getting engaged, surviving their first-ever camping trip and dog-sitting two French bulldogs – at home.

“If we’re going to brag,” Ip said, “I’m going to lean into it, even if it’s a pandemic brag.”

Amplify: The act of sending a Christmas card takes on a new meaning this year

Many Canadian families use their annual Christmas letters to highlight the year’s big moments: travel, job promotions, kids’ achievements at school and beyond. But as the global pandemic torpedoed these milestones, many had decidedly less to brag about in their holiday missives this year.

The cards and letters of 2020 are a drastic departure from holidays past. Laced with profanity, real talk, gratitude and reflection – as well as masked-up Santas, toilet-paper tree garlands and wishes for vaccines and curbside liquor pickups – Christmas correspondence is serving as a time capsule of an unprecedented year.

Nicole Smith, owner of Halifax card shop Duly Noted Stationery, saw first-hand how correspondence has changed during the pandemic. When lockdowns began in March, her staff began offering a service writing and mailing greeting cards to help shoppers stay at home. Customers ordered their cards online and typed out a message; shop staff then wrote those notes inside cards and mailed them out.

Duly Noted staff wrote and mailed more than 150 Christmas cards this year. Smith observed there was little pandemic bragging in all those greetings. Instead, writers focused on the importance of their relationships.

“A lot of the notes we wrote were, ‘I’m thinking about you,’ ‘I miss you,’ ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to see you for a while,’” Smith said. “They’ve been very sincere and sweet.”

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For many, 2020 ended up being about slowing down and considering what matters, she said. “That’s why people want to send these letters. They are more deliberate and personal.”

Even so, many card writers quipped about “2020 problems,” including the ubiquitous video calls on FaceTime and Zoom, working from home in pajamas and stumbling over spouses in quarantine, Smith said.

Toronto's Jen and Mike Turner and their son Xavier for their pandemic-themed Christmas card this year.


Toronto couple Mike and Jen Turner went full pandemic for their themed Christmas card this year. Decked out under the tree in hazmat suits, latex gloves, masks and goggles, Mike, a stay-at-home dad, presented a 12-pack of toilet paper while his wife, who works at a vet clinic, held up a package of disinfectant wipes. Their son Xavier beamed, clutching disinfectant spray with a red bow on top.

“It was funny and seemed appropriate for this strange year we’ve had,” he said.

Ironic and self-effacing – not boastful – might be the way to go this Christmas, agreed British author Simon Garfield, who traced the history of letter-writing in his 2013 book To The Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World.

“Most people’s values have been reset,” Garfield said. “The aspirational things we may have considered important before – achieving success at work, buying new things, travelling and discovering – have been turned inward. Readers won’t stomach, ‘Little Johnny was top of his class again,’ as they [once] did. I mean, who gives a damn?”

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North Dakota State University communications professor Ann Burnett has collected Christmas letters dating back to the 1970s to understand what they say about how various generations choose to spend their time. In recent years, Burnett noticed holiday letters became less about “blessings of the season” and more about bragging about how busy we are.

She recalled two dramatic shifts in the tone of annual Christmas letters: in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and during the 2007 recession. As she surveys holiday correspondence through the global pandemic, Burnett is keen to see whether it will reflect the times – or not.

The letters she’s amassed this year reveal people still showing off, just in new ways: how resilient their children have been; which outdoor, physically distanced sports they’ve excelled at; how hard spouses are working and how sexy they look with their grown-out lockdown locks. Burnett compared it to the online boasting that emerged through the spring lockdowns, with everyone baking sourdough loaves and renovating their homes.

But she’s also observed another theme in this year’s correspondence – sarcastic, profanity-strewn messages about surviving a year from hell, drenched in booze. As she collects more 2020 letters, Burnett is hoping to see more authentic conversations about hardship and gratitude for good health and slower days spent with family.

Toronto public-relations consultant Sabina Wex, 25, wrote out and mailed more than 100 cards this year, a process she began in September. Wex kept her notes brief, appreciative and free of gloating. She believes snail mail is particularly important this year, with everyone staying put at home.

“I sent a few cards to people who live down the block from me,” said Wex, who worked at a greeting card store during high school.

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“I could’ve just walked over and put it in their mailbox, but it’s really nice to think that someone made the effort to handwrite this thing, put a stamp on it, and spend some time on this.”

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