The Christmas Card as Social Media

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Don't worry: there'll be humblebrags all year round now!

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A Christmas card (flickr/meanderingwa).

The number of Christmas cards appears to be dwindling, mailbox by mailbox, jolly Santa by red-nose reindeer. And there's something unnerving about that for some people. What will it mean if no one sends Christmas cards or letters? Nothing good, they'll tell you.

Nina Burleigh distills this sentiment for a nice essay in Time, pinning the blame for the decline on the ubiquity of social media in giving real-time access to one's friends and associates. "We already know exactly how they've fared in the past year, much more than could possibly be conveyed by any single Christmas card," Burleigh writes. "If a child or grandchild has been born to a former colleague or high school chum living across the continent, not only did I see it within hours on Shutterfly or Instagram or Facebook, I might have seen him or her take his or her first steps on YouTube. If a job was gotten or lost, a marriage made or ended, we have already witnessed the woe and joy of it on Facebook, email and Twitter."

Although the reason for the cards supposed decline is the rise in social interactions with one's people (sounds great?), the falling importance of Christmas cards remains, in Burleigh's mind, a bad omen. 

"[T]he demise of the Christmas photo card saddens me. It portends the end of the U.S. Postal Service. It signals the day is near when writing on paper is non-existent. Finally, it is part of a decline of a certain quality of communication, one that involved delay and anticipation, forethought and reflection," Burleigh continues. "Opening these cards, the satisfaction wasn't just in the Peace on Earth greeting, but in the recognition that a distant friend or relative you hadn't heard from in a year was still thinking about you, and maybe sharing news about major events of the past 12 months."

But if you look even just a tiny bit deeper into the history of Christmas cards and letters, they cannot carry the weight Burleigh (and many others) want them to. 

Take a look back at this article from 1978. It as already bemoaning that the salad days of Christmas cards were over! The 1960s were really the big growth period for cards. Why? "Back in those days, it was a lot more impersonal. Secretaries addressed their bosses' cards," the then-President of Hallmark said. "Now people may send fewer cards, but will put personal notes on them." 

It wasn't long ago that the Christmas letter, specifically, was reviled, not celebrated. An older writer on HamptonRoads.com, who had not gotten the memo it was time to celebrate the golden hour of the form, commented, "Every year I get those letters, the ones where friends brag about how Junior graduated from Harvard, Sister married the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Hubby got a promotion for the twentieth year in a row and the letter-writer was voted best Mom in the world."

Honestly, I'd always thought other people considered Christmas cards a necessary evil of maintaining reciprocal friendships with people who liked them. And to my mind, Christmas letters were a loathsome tradition sent into overdrive by photocopying machines and easy access to desktop publishing tools. And yet now we find sadness over the loss of this valuable form of literary output and emotional connection. 

Even a pre-mainstream-Facebook article about practice of Christmas letter writing in the Christian Science Monitor had to begin with a defense:

Around Christmastime a couple of years ago, one of my friends ranted about how much he hated those holiday "brag letters" people send out each year. After making a mental note never to send him one in the future, I began to wonder what it is that makes people so irate about the good fortune of others.

I actually like hearing about what the people who lived down the street from me 20 years ago are up to. Sure, it initially takes some remembering to figure out who they are and why they're sending me that card, but if it weren't for the annual tradition, it would be easy to lose touch.

What's the logic here? Someone keeps your name in a database Rolodex, dashes off a note or prints another copy of a letter once a year, and that's supposed to be some form of deep, analog connection?

How's that any different from the very worst of Facebook, the oft-derided birthday greetings from people who would never otherwise remember your birthday?

So, what I find most fascinating about the decline of Christmas missives and its attendant celebration is that we are willing to imbue them with the power to connect us together, while denying that power to newer inventions. 

Imagine social media's critics casting their eyes on the enterprise of holiday-card writing: 

  • Holiday cards are a stand in for real face-to-face interaction, allowing people to present a simulacra of emotional connection that hollows out the real thing. 
  • The Christmas card list was the original "friend" list. 
  • Holiday cards, in that you could count them, led to an early quantification of social relationships.  "How many Christmas cards are on *your* mantle?" 
  • Christmas letters allowed people to cherrypick from their lives, allowing them to misrepresent the "real" person behind the letter. 
  • Holiday cards were mostly maudlin crap wishing people "Peace on Earth" as if that could make any real difference for stopping wars. 
  • Christmas letters mostly contained the mundane details about people trips, diseases, trumped up accomplishments, and hallucinatory future plans.
  • Holiday cards merely serve to enrich the card companies. 
  • Holiday cards are expensive for some people to purchase and send, reinforcing societal inequalities. 
  • Holiday cards often served to shore up business networks and social alliances rather than to communicate real feelings. 
  • The labor of holiday cards fell disproportionately to women, who were given one more laborious task and judged more harshly than men if their efforts fell short.

And on and on and on. 

Burleigh's an interesting writer and I don't think we can chalk up her Christmas card desires to simple nostalgia. There's something about the way we talk about technology and change that makes it seem like there are these discontinuous eras where -- SNAP! -- the whole world becomes different. And as we try to put things back together from this rhetorical future shock, the timeline gets jumbled. Memories of Christmas letters from the 1960s expressing timeless sentiments get grafted onto 1980s designs, which are pictured with 1970s stamps. Somewhere, there is the sound of a dot matrix printer putting ink on paper. 

This kind of remembering is something weirder than nostalgia. It's not looking back at one sunny era; it's a crazy mashup of varied history and technologies that create a chimera we can  compare, generally, to Twitter or Facebook. That's how Christmas cards somehow come to stand in for the existence of "writing on paper." We need a symbol of the past to compare with these symbols of the present. That's how we blow our own minds about how fast the world is changing.

Here's my optimistic thought, though: What if we stop thinking about "the way technology changes our lives" as less sudden. What if we look for continuities rather than breaks? 

For one, the death of the Christmas card is at least slightly exaggerated. The numbers are a bit confusing. First class mail around Christmas has fallen roughly 25 percent off its peak in 2006, according to the USPS. And a marketing firm suggests that fewer people are buying Christmas cards

On the other hand, despite the drop, the USPS will still send 2 billion pieces of holiday mail a year. And the companies that make Christmas cards are doing OK, too. "Is Facebook putting card sending out of business?" asked Kathy Krassner, a spokesperson for the Greeting Card Association. "Truly, it's helped. A lot of people, myself included, have reestablished connections with people that I would have never found. It's helped establish more connections." 

The precipitous drop for Christmas mailings came in the wake of the financial crisis and the near destruction of the global economy, not with rising Facebook penetration rates. The card industry's statistics back that up. The Greeting Card Association estimates that 1.6 billion Christmas cards will be purchased this year, a small increase from last year. A report from the research firm, IBISWorld, anticipates that cards and postage will be the highest they've been in five years -- $3.17 billion total. And finally, the card industry's biggest player, Hallmark, has had revenues of around $4.0 billion dollars since the mid-2000s, without much growth or decline.

Second, beyond the physical form of these cards, the spirit of Christmasness, of holidayness only grows more pervasive. No matter what time of the year, people now write contemplative letters with weird formatting to an ill-defined audience of "friends"; these are Christmas letters, whether Santa is coming down the chimney or not. There are reindeer horns on pugs in July. And humblebrags about promotions in April. There are dating updates in November. And you can disclose that you were voted mother of the year any damn day you please. 

For good or for ill, perhaps we're seeing not the death of the holiday card and letter, but its rebirth as a rhetorical mode.  Confessional, self-promotional, hokey, charming, earnest, technically honest, introspective, hopey-changey: Oh, Christmas Card, you have gone open-source and conquered us all. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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