On Sending (and Receiving) Holiday Cards and Letters

In the small Maryland town where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, sending and receiving postal holiday cards was an important part of holiday tradition. Dad and Mom participated by taking an annual posed picture of us kids and then making numerous copies in Dad’s basic home photo lab, stinking up our house for days. They’d either include a holiday greeting in the photo itself or add a brief caption to each copy.

Then they’d stuff envelopes, write out addresses, and affix stamps by hand to send to family, neighbors, friends, and business contacts. Our parents’ lives back then were too busy for lengthy missives. However, we sometimes received cards with long enclosed letters from friends and family far away. In our house, one entire hallway was devoted to an arrangement of the most colorful cards, dozens and dozens of them, usually patterned into the shape of a stylized tree. After I started a family of my own, I continued the holiday card tradition. 

By now, the postal holiday card and letter are fast becoming outmoded. Email can be a lot quicker and just as informative. All the same, I’m loathe to give up the older tradition. Stationery and gift shops still stock boxes of holiday cards. The U.S. Postal Service still collects and distributes mail. 

Those of us who write holiday letters in whatever medium tend to brag a bit. We also tend to play down any difficult parts of the year just ended. I find pleasure in sitting down to compose a physical page (never more, rarely less) of highlights of the year just ending. It’s heavy on the celebrations and on the achievements of the younger generations.

This year I got a late start sending out holiday cards and letters because of holiday travel, visiting family members on the other coast whose pictures I hoped to include. Now I’m back home. Relevant trip pictures have been transferred from cell phone to computer. I’ve started my annual ritual of card and letter composition and distribution. 

Tools for preparing and mailing holiday cards and letters have gotten somewhat more convenient since my parents’ days. My desktop printer will crank out appropriate adhesive mailing labels in sheets of thirty labels each. The printer can also produce multiple copies of letter text and interspersed images in either black and while or color. My word processing software, with some wrangling, will position pictures where I want them in the overall design. Most envelopes have peel off adhesive strips so they no longer require licking. Most stamps are also self-adhesive.   

The process of writing out each card and sticking labels on an appropriate envelope helps me bring to mind each recipient in turn. I remember how they are special to me. I briefly reweave some of the tapestry of our friendships. It’s disappointing when a card gets returned with “no forwarding address”—I’ve lost track of yet another tie to my past. Even worse are the cards returned with regretful notes letting me know the intended recipient has died. Each year, the prior year’s card mailing list gets winnowed by at least a few names. As best I can, I focus on the good of the lives that have ended. In this era when age segregation has increased, I try to include younger friends and to broaden the age range of new friends beyond just my own cohort. Otherwise, my holiday card list would gradually dwindle to nothingness. 

Our current house has little hall space. The number of postal cards we receive has diminished. The ones we still get will fit easily on our mantelpiece and along the top shelf of the smallest bookcase. I cherish them, fewer though they may be. In these shortest days of the year, they remind me both of the longer span of lives well lived and of the beauty of lives newly started. They reconnect us, something most of us can use after much pandemic-related isolation. 

Happy holidays to you and yours! A belated Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy (Solar) New Year! Happy Upcoming (Lunar) Year of the Rabbit! Whatever your media of choice, may you continue to send and receive holiday greetings!   

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