To Send or Not to Send: That is the New Boomer Christmas Card Question

About the second week in December each year, our parents would start stressing over Christmas cards. The exceptions to the rule were the few early-bird relatives and friends who made it their Thanksgiving regimen: mail Christmas cards in November so that everyone would receive them the first week of December. Despite the early-birds, it was an annual ritual that many dreaded, while others reveled in sharing their holiday spirit. For Mister Boomer’s parents, it was a little of both.

Each year the conversation began — very often while in the car, en route to and from Christmas shopping — about what would be done THIS year. It was never a question of whether a card would be sent, just a matter of how many would be sent, and what type of card it would be. The latter part of the equation was often solved by what types of cards were available in the largest number per box at the cheapest price. The Mister Boomer family was not to be known for luxurious and extravagant cards. It was rare when a purchase by Mister B’s mom would have accompanying envelopes with a strip of gold foil inside them — a sure sign of elegance and that someone was spending more on their cards. Rather, the envelope was more likely to show the contents through its thin layer of paper.

Mister Boomer’s mother lead the charge to Christmas card sending. On the designated day, usually on a weekend, Mister B and his siblings were instructed to take their positions around the dining room table. In production line fashion, his mom would sign cards with a blue ink pen, making sure to write the name of each family member, and maybe add a personal note of a sentence or two. Meanwhile one of the Boomer kids would write the address on the envelope, finding the recipient’s name in the family address book. A return address sticker — usually supplied for free by numerous charities looking for holiday donations — would be affixed to the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. Sometimes, in true old-fashioned style, Mister B’s mother would write the return address on the flap of the envelope on the reverse side of the envelope.

With card and envelope married, another Boomer child would affix a stamp and seal the deal. Mister Boomer got that chore fairly often since his brother and sister didn’t care for the job, and they were more vocal than he. Mister B didn’t like it much either. After licking a few stamps and envelopes, the taste of glue would permeate the mouth. One year Sister Boomer had a brainstorm and brought in a damp sponge from the kitchen. She slid the stamp over the sponge and quickly adhered it to the envelope in the upper right-hand corner, as was the postal requirement. What the Boomer children soon learned, though, was that not enough water on the sponge meant the stamp would not stick, nor the envelope seal. Too much water had the same effect. Consequently, cellophane tape was on hand to save the day.

Mister B’s mother would set aside any of the cards for his father to sign that were going to go to co-workers or top brass at his workplace. Each of the owners and supervisors got a Christmas card from Mister Boomer’s family, and they would send one in return, too. Mister Boomer was awed by the heavy weight of the envelopes with their gold or silver lining. Inside, the person’s name was printed on the card. Mister Boomer felt these people must be rich to afford such luxury.

There were more than a hundred cards sent by the family each year. A good portion of that was just immediate family. Mister Boomer’s parents, like many of their generation, grew up in large families. The oldest of the cousins who were married and on their own made the list, too. Neighbors, family friends and Mister B’s father’s co-workers rounded out the total. A few cards were always reserved “just in case” the Boomer household received a card from someone who wasn’t on the list.

People had been exchanging Christmas cards for a few generations before Baby Boomers arrived on the scene. Mister Boomer has chronicled this history in a post two years ago (Boomers Were Reminded to “Mail Early”). In it, he wondered whether the sending of cards would be eclipsed by e-cards or would disappear entirely. Mister B has a long history of sending cards himself, though he prefers a more personalized greeting of his own design. After receiving less than one dozen cards last year — snail mail and e-card delivery — he is now wondering whether the time has come to evaluate the entire ritual for his own practices. We boomers stand at the same precipice we have faced several times before: when the 8-track tape was phased out, the cassette tape, the VCR, and more. Boomers, unlike previous generations, have been known to adapt to change very well. When that change can mean less work, we seem to embrace it all the more quickly.

Mister B remains on the fence on this one, torn between tradition and nostalgia and the march of modernity. So, to send or not to send: where do you stand on the sending of Christmas cards, boomers?

Boomers Were Reminded to “Mail Early”

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?