I grew up in a time of posted Christmas cards, with handwritten notes inside and licked-on stamps. I write that and I feel as though I'm about to describe another time in human history. I might as well have written that I grew up eating brontosaurus pie for dinner.
Sales of holiday cards are "relatively flat" in Canada, according to Jim Driscoll, director of marketing for Carlton Cards and chairman of the Gift Packaging and Greeting Card Association of Canada. During the holidays, roughly 185 million cards are bought. "But no one has really figured out why it feels like you're receiving less of them," he says, adding that e-cards don't have a great impact on the sale of printed cards. Canada Post, though, has some insight: Research has shown that people may think about sending cards, but when it comes down to the holiday crunch, many don't. "It's not for lack of good intentions, but lack of time," Anick Losier, a Canada Post spokeswoman, explains, adding that the postal service has a new app to help customers design and send cards.
Ironically, taking care to do something is about taking time from other activities, the very thing we are unwilling to do. An e-card is like buying a turkey TV dinner and placing it in front of everyone around the dining-room table. I even have a problem with electronically designed cards that have typed personal messages. Part of the joy of the old-fashioned Christmas card was the handwriting of the person who sent it – trying to decipher it, how intimate that felt, the decoding of the personal script. My grandmother had big, loopy handwriting, a generous hand, which reflected her nature. But it was also, as she was, proper – between the lines and self-contained. It was as particular as her scent, which you sometimes got a hint of on the card, as personal as the way she kissed me on the cheek.
It wasn't a surprise to me to read a British survey from earlier this year suggesting that handwriting is becoming a lost craft. More than half of the 2,000 respondents in the survey by Docmail, a British printing and mailing company, admitted that the quality of their handwriting had declined. One in three people had not had any reason to write anything by hand for six months.
I'm not suggesting that I'm some old-school Christmas-card sender. I only wish I were. I used to be. Now, I buy cards only for my husband and children, which I put on the tree or in their stockings. It's a chance to express something quietly. But I fondly remember the ritual of sending and receiving cards from my childhood, in the same way that I recall my mother making Christmas fruitcake from scratch, great scoops of raisins and candied fruit stirred into the rich, buttery batter.
Sending cards was a form of social duty, as important as showing up at church, wearing the appropriate outfit to an event or putting on your lipstick before you left the house. It was a public interaction, a flick of style, a reciprocal exchange of pleasantries, a cup of tea and idle chitchat in an envelope. You never communicated which child had come home drunk that year or who crashed the car. This wasn't gossip or even the making of family lore, which did often include stories of who barfed when, where and why. The Christmas-card message was the crafting of family legacy, a narrative of happiness.
And the number of cards received was a popularity contest, a reflection of one's social reach to people around the globe. Not that one would ever admit that, of course. That's the thing about cards displayed prominently, along the mantelpiece, on tables, stuck around the edges of a mirror or a door frame. Beautiful and colourful, yes, but also an in-your-face, unspoken reinforcement about the importance of connection, the sharing of cheer and good wishes at this time of year.
This was how the first commercial Christmas came into being – as a statement of values. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a great admirer of design, commissioned illustrator John Callcott Horsley to paint a triptych card with each side panel depicting a good deed – the clothing of the poor and the feeding of the hungry – and the centre one celebrating the conviviality of the season. (A thousand of them were printed, only 12 of which exist today. In 2001, one of the first Horsley cards sold at auction for £22,250 or approximately $35,500 at today's exchange rate.)
Along the way, the Christmas card became a vanity tool. Think of the egregious Kardashian Christmas card with all the family members artfully arranged in their best possible clothing or the political cards from Stephen Harper, he in his Dad sweater, safe smiles all around, a marketing effort to push steadfast commitment and trust. The greatest vanity display that I ever came across were the annual cards from Louise Blouin MacBain, a Canadian philanthropist and arts entrepreneur in London, England. In the 1990s, when she and her second husband, John MacBain, were building their classified-advertising empire, their annual Christmas cards became more and more grand. At the start she was a demure wife with a babe in arms. By the end – they divorced in 2000 – the scene was something out of Hello! magazine, showing a regal splendour that would rival Marie Antoinette, her three children and presents arrayed at her feet, her husband standing dutifully behind her.
But in the spirit of the season, I can even forgive that. Vanity is so universal, so human. And the Christmas card is a way of saying you're still alive even though you're not in frequent touch.
There's only one person I know who does it for the old-fashioned reasons. She has sent out about 40 for the past 30 years. She selects them carefully, lays them out on her desk, writes in each with a special pen. She thinks about the recipient's delight in the opening of the card. "It's a ceremony for me to send them and for the those who receive them," she tells me. "It's all about beauty and paper and feeling and colour and love." Well, hallelujah.