Smithsonian.com published an article on December 9, 2015, entitled “The History of the Christmas Card,” by John Hanc. According to the Smithsonian.com article, Christmas cards began in 1843 in London, when the very busy Henry Cole decided to send post cards instead of handwritten notes to his friends at the holidays.
Thus, it is likely that when the emigrants of 1847 in my novel Lead Me Home wrote back to their families after reaching Oregon, they would not yet have had the advantage of published Christmas cards. They would have had to make do with letters, assuming they could find a place to mail the letters back to the United States.
For many of us who work(ed) for Hallmark Cards, the Smithsonian.com article was old news. Hallmark has displays of old Christmas cards dating back to the 1840s, when the tradition of sending cards began. I used to love waiting for the elevator and perusing the display of old cards. And most of us at Hallmark knew about the most popular Hallmark Christmas card—the one depicting three little angels, one impish angel with her halo askew (though I personally have never liked this card).
Although the Smithsonian.com article was not news to me, it did get me thinking about my own Christmas card traditions.
When I was growing up, my mother always sent Christmas cards. She wrote letters on most of them. Sometimes we children helped to stuff the envelopes after she had written her notes.
I first sent my own Christmas cards when I went off to college. I sent fewer than twenty cards, and only to close family and friends. This pattern continued through my college and law school years, though I had to expand my card list after my husband and I married to include his family and friends. He never participated in the addressing, signing, or stuffing of the cards.
In my early years of sending cards, I never worried about the brand I sent. I typically picked up some pretty cards in the campus bookstore. In December 1975 I sent a lovely Black Madonna I found in the bookstore at The American University where I had spent the fall semester.
When I started working for Hallmark in the fall of 1979, I received a certain number of free cards as a perk. There was no excuse not to send cards, and I broadened the recipients to include my co-workers. And to my husband’s co-workers. It seemed to me that the people we worked with should be worth the cost of a first-class stamp, since the cards themselves were free.
And, of course, I only sent Hallmark brand cards.
For many years I took my Christmas cards and my address list to wherever I celebrated Thanksgiving. It became my tradition to address all the cards by hand over Thanksgiving weekend. I might not get all the cards signed and the envelopes stuffed, but the envelopes were addressed. That was the hard part, and I tried to get it done early. The cards were usually ready to mail the first week in December.
Fortunately or unfortunately, our universe expanded. Each year there were more and more cards to address. My husband’s law firm merged and grew. My circle of acquaintances at Hallmark increased. I still wanted to send them to everyone we worked with, as well as to the families that we and our children were friendly with. But the task became daunting. I couldn’t address all the cards on Thanksgiving weekend. Every year it seemed I was later in mailing the cards.
I shifted to computerized labels. Perhaps Miss Manners wouldn’t approve, but it made the job easier. I had watch that people didn’t move on me. I used the same computer list from year to year, and if I wasn’t careful to note everyone who changed addresses during the year, I would get cards returned to me in January.
The task continued to grow. I tried to get my kids to stuff envelopes, like I had helped as a child, but they weren’t very cooperative. They hated the taste of the envelope glue, even though I bribed them with hot chocolate.
And no way could I write notes on all the cards. I began writing a Christmas letter, of the ilk that so many people hate. The older relatives to whom I sent the letter always said they liked it. Everyone else was too polite to tell me to stop.
Except my children. They complained each year, not wanting their deeds and misdeeds published to the world. But I didn’t listen to them. I did give them editing privileges on the paragraphs that related to them. And I gave my husband complete editing authority, then did what I wanted with his changes.
My mailing date grew later in December. If the cards were sent before December 15, I considered it a victory.
My husband’s firm merged again and doubled in size. There were lawyers in the firm he didn’t know. He was not participating in the Christmas card project. I told him I would only send cards to the people he specifically named. He didn’t name very many, and the rest were scratched off the list. Bah, humbug. I felt guilty.
Still, my work group expanded, and my list expanded along with it. At the high point, I was sending close to 400 cards. And the mailing date approached Christmas itself.
In December 2006 I retired. No more free Christmas cards. I had some boxes left over from earlier years. I bought some new and used some old, and continued to send cards, though my list dwindled. I continued to write a letter, though we have less and less to write about, it seems. (Except this year I published a book, so Lead Me Home gets featured!)
I have now been retired for nine years. I winnow the list more every year, though new people have been added as I’ve joined new boards and found new friends. This year I will send cards to about 150 people.
I will send only Hallmark brand cards. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they get mailed before Christmas.
Merry Christmas to all, whether you’re on my card list or not!