Six years ago, Ken Sarafin created his inaugural family Christmas card. Harnessing the aesthetic of Norman Rockwell—the 20th-century painter known for conveying the everyday life of Middle America—Sarafin illustrated a portrait of his sister, her husband, and their then-newborn daughter. The painting showed Sarafin’s niece crying on the floor, with her father nearby wearing a disheveled tie and drinking a martini, and her mother talking on the phone while mixing something in a bowl; in the background sat a small, scraggly, Charlie Brown–esque Christmas tree. “We were kind of going for 1950s Americana and its traditional gender roles on that one,” Sarafin recently told me.
At the time, Sarafin—a 33-year-old graphic designer in Denver who doesn’t have children of his own—saw the card as a perfect opportunity to put his painting hobby, and his newfound affinity for Rockwell’s style, to use. It was also a way to bond with his family—and to poke fun at the classic family holiday card, with its matching sweaters, forced smiles, and feigned peace. Sarafin and his sister had never been fans of “Christmas cards that are overly cheesy and cutesy and look how great our family is,” he says. He’s illustrated a similar portrait of his sister’s family in disarray every Christmas since.
Americans today are sending far less snail mail than they used to: The overall volume of physical mail in the United States has dropped 43 percent since 2001, according to the U.S. Postal Service. But one form of conventional mail that has somewhat bucked this trend is greeting cards—especially family holiday cards. While the rates of sending cards have declined slightly, today’s Americans buy 6.5 billion greeting cards annually, according to data from the Greeting Card Association. Of those, 1.6 billion are for Christmas, the largest card-sending holiday in the country. And greeting-card mail, it seems, has declined at a much lower rate than overall mail.