It’s that time of year once again, when the U.S. Post Office reminds us to “mail early” in order to get cards, letters and packages to their destination before Christmas. December is certainly their busiest month, but today’s volume of mailed cards can’t compare with the volumes that were sent in the boomer years. The mailing of holiday cards has steadily decreased over the past couple of decades, directly corresponding to the rise of the Internet, e-mail and the cell phone.
Christmas cards first appeared in England in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until 1875 that the first cards were printed in the U.S. They became so popular that the original publisher, a German immigrant lithographer named Louis Prang, couldn’t compete with the slew of printers jumping on the bandwagon. With the introduction of the Christmas postcard a few years later, the card and envelope greeting was close to extinction. The shift was caused by the combination of the convenience and cheap cost of postcards coupled with mailing set at a penny. By the 1920s, however, the more “formal” greeting of a card placed inside an envelope reclaimed its dominant position.
When the Boomer Generation began, the War had ended and people were ready to celebrate the holiday season in a jovial atmosphere. Humor and cartoons became prevalent in card designs, as echoed in the advertising of the day. Throughout the 1960s, cards pictured nostalgic, sentimental and religious imagery. By the time the last boomers were born in 1964, the sending of Christmas cards had peaked.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first elected post-war president, was the first to issue an official White House Christmas card, in 1953. Other presidents had sent out greeting cards, but it took Eisenhower to elevate the practice to an official category. Eisenhower’s first card was all-white in a horizontal format, sporting a red strip along the bottom, and made by Hallmark. The front contained an embossed Great Seal of President of the United States, sans additional ink, and a gold, Old English-lettered “Season’s Greetings” below the Seal. Inside, the printed sentiment read, “The President and Mrs. Eisenhower extend their best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” It’s hard to say whether that had an effect on the nation in terms of mailing cards, but expanding the practice to official state status does reflect the zeitgeist of the day in the “anything is possible” optimism of the 1950s.
Thanks to TV during during the Boomer era, we could see how our First Families were celebrating the holidays.
Mister Boomer recalls the tradition of sending holiday cards in his family. First, there was the making of the list. This could cause conflict as people were added and dropped, often based on whether they had sent a card the previous year. Next was the purchase of the cards, which in Mister B’s family meant boxes of cards from a discount store. Once stamps were procured — a function Mister B’s mom would execute since the Post Office was a short walk away — came the annual discussion over who would write the cards. Inevitably, there were some that each wanted the other to handle, whether due to familial or work relationships. Us kids would help, sitting around the dining room table, addressing envelopes using the family address book, and licking the stamps to attach to each envelope.
What was of much more interest to Mister B were the cards that arrived at the house. Most boomer households displayed the cards they received, but the manner varied. While some who had fireplaces may have placed them on the mantel, others hung the cards over a string, either festooned across a wall, attached to ceiling molding or another architectural feature of their living or dining rooms. Others still, like Mister B’s mother, Scotch-taped them, first to the back of the front door, then on the paneled wall that separated the living room from the kitchen as the collection grew with each day’s mail delivery. Some years his mom would cover the back of the door in aluminum foil before taping the cards to it. The shiny silver lent a festive sheen to the ceremonious display.
Despite the continuing drop in mail volume, an estimated 1.6 billion holiday cards will be sent this year. Plus an additional 500 million holiday cards will be sent via electronic means. As the number of mailed cards falls, the number of e-cards has risen. Meanwhile, many have given up the practice altogether. What are the reasons most people give for stopping their tradition of sending holiday cards?
- They are too busy to devote the necessary time.
- The cost of the cards plus the postage has become prohibitive.
- People have become much more casual. It’s much easier to call, e-mail or send an e-card to wish someone a happy season.
- We are no longer a society dependent on handwritten notes.
The practice of sending cards is another tradition that we as boomers have seen change in our lifetimes, and it continues to change. Will we live long enough to see a day when mailing a holiday card is as old-fashioned as taking a horse and buggy ride?
What memories of holiday cards do you have, boomers?