In the ancient days of the twentieth century, before the internet normalized access to instantaneous contact with other humans thousands of miles away, keeping in touch with distant family and friends took effort and/or money. Long-distance calls weren’t included free in our monthly phone bills and racked up astronomical charges if we stayed on the line more than a few minutes. Cross-country travel was affordable for upper classes but a luxury beyond the reach of my family. That left two choices on the table for us: making do with happy thoughts and prayers; or the United States Postal Service.
Today our mailbox receives mostly ads, bills, and two magazine subscriptions for this aging fan of the printed page. As a kid there was also a thing called “letters”, which were like tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram captions except they used an ancient formalist structure called “paragraphs”. They resembled email — ask your parents what that was — but were written on typing devices without internet access. Most letter-making machines didn’t have monitors. Some extreme models didn’t even use electricity. The most minimalist among us forwent typing altogether and resorted to “writing utensils”, which to some kids today are probably the equivalent of cavemen etching sticks.
My grandma was big on writing long missives to other folks from her generation, using a complex code called “cursive” that transformed ordinary letters into tiny, bloated balloon animals. She and her fellow olds spent many an hour describing the highlights of their remaining days, swapping anecdotes they already knew, sharing other people’s nonverbal status updates, and writing entire essays beginning with “Remember when…” without expectation of getting paid for it. In their era, you didn’t write “for exposure” and often not even for a living. The very act of frequent letter-writing was an ongoing expression of friendship and/or love. The effort was appreciated, and often returned in kind and with equal output. No one ever responded to a handcrafted five-page letter by mailing the writer a single cartoonish drawing of a thumbs-up gesture.
Handwritten mail is an extreme rarity anymore, save the month of December, the wondrous season of the Christmas card. Once per year, a select clique of dedicated individuals imbued with true holiday spirit take time out from their busy phone-life to mail out Christmas cards, often with the personal signature of at least one member of their household included for free. Christmas cards are a fun way to notify people in your various circles that:
- you’re still alive
- you remain hopeful they’re still alive
- it’s Christmas time, in case they forgot
- the USPS is alive and hasn’t been mismanaged into bankruptcy or destroyed by feeble-minded government officials
- you’re doing so well financially that you can afford stamps
- you know how to mail things, possibly using the tutorial I once helpfully wrote
- you found a Christmas image, sentiment, verse, or joke that you really wanted to share with them
- you want to wish them a positive Christmas experience
- their existence still matters to you on some level
Some folks will eschew specifically Christmas cards in favor of cards covering the broader “holiday” spectrum. This approach thus far hasn’t brought the world to an end or caused the demise of any of your sturdier local churches, but some “holiday” cards vary in their power to resonate in quite the same way. Some holiday cards are more like expressions of winter fandom that could technically be mailed in January or February and still be on-topic as long as MLK Day and Valentine’s Day remain legal. Some holiday cards can be just as cute or funny or heartwarming, though, and at least imply their focus is celebrating whatever your favorite December days are. Honestly, we’ll take what we can get, no questions asked.
Like other time-honored Christmas traditions such as home-cooked overweight birds or watchable animated TV specials, Christmas cards are fading from the to-do lists of a lot of people we know. Anne is naturally, dutifully, cheerfully in charge of our household’s Christmas card program, though in recent years she’s struggled with the waning Christmas-card options at our local brick-and-mortar retailers. Her specific but quite simple requirements increasingly elude the grasp of companies that have clearly given up and are phoning them in. Today’s purveyors apparently assume they can dump cheap cards into the market with all the intricacy of Print Shop e-cards assembled by grade-schoolers. They’re neglecting the fine art of Christmas card design in favor of stock photos and near-featureless interiors containing only the words “Merry Christmas” and no actual wordsmithery for either exterior or interior. This is wrong and Anne will not have it.
Thankfully she found what she was looking for this year in a timely manner, and our cards were mailed out on schedule. If I may boast, as always I gladly cosigned those cards personally. As long as my brain is still my own, I refuse to let any cards leave this house signed “Anne and Randy” in a single handwriting style. Again, it’s that “effort” thing I mentioned earlier that people appreciate. We may not be writing them individual five-page letters, but it’s something. It’s fun. It’s one of our Christmas traditions.
And we’re not alone. We appreciate the senders of those fifteen cards in our lead photo — nine from family, five from friends, and one from a favorite charity. To be fair, it helps that Anne’s family is relatively huge. Three of them included darling family photos, which are always a nice touch. Several were sent by folks who could’ve just driven over and handed them to us, but that negates the joy of getting pleasant surprises in our otherwise humdrum mail. As always, impressed gratitude and extra credit points are owed to my sister-in-law and her kids who go above and beyond with unique DIY handicrafts, coming up with a different card design every year, always requiring painstaking assembly-line coordination among them.
They’re validations of our existence. They’re something new for our our postal carriers to look at while they’re working. They’re nice temporary additions to our decor. And they’re emotionally imbued, tangible artifacts that make Christmas a little cozier between us even across the thousands of miles that keep us separate but not forgotten.