As I begin this column, I have just finished updating my Christmas card log. Yes, I still mail paper Christmas cards and I track those send and received in an actual book. It’s small phone directory, which is another disappearing part of our culture. Writing down mailing addresses—the house number, street, town, state and zip code—seems so quaint nowadays.
Every day this time of year we receive a clutch of cards from distant friends and acquaintances. I’m something of an expert, having begun my Christmas card routine when I was a college student. I actually wrote notes to friends and relatives while studying for my final exams. I know this is true because I remember hand-writing holiday letters at a desk in my sorority house. Letters weren’t typed back in the 1970s. A typed letter was just too stiff and businesslike for Christmas.
My mother, a compulsive card-sender and note taker, sniffed about impersonal mimeographed letters written in the third person. “Who do they think they are?” she’d mutter.
Who they were, I knew, were busy people (mostly women) who were better organized and efficient. Or women who knew their own handwriting was hopelessly illegible.
Mom, meanwhile, hand wrote each letter in fountain pen—later with a ballpoint—messing up and starting over. Her chiseled writing style was distinctive, but hard to read. She’d enclose her letters in a Hallmark card—Gibson or American brands weren’t quite up to snuff. If we were going to correspond with these people once a year, she reasoned, we should send the very best.
As I entered adulthood, I knew that I was my mother’s daughter. I would send cards, by golly, but I wouldn’t wait to send until Christmas Eve, which my mother sometimes did. Handwritten letters were a slow go.
For years after Tym and I married, we sent (rather, I sent), more than 100 cards each Christmas.
The years have taken their toll. Our list is now about 65, as recipients weed themselves out. Some people die, of course. Others fade away and don’t leave a forwarding address. Or if they do, the forwarding period has expired and the person hasn’t bothered to tell us where they are, nor will they ever. They’re easy cross-outs.
Yes, I enclose typed, photocopied letters (sorry Mom) though I’ve noticed most no longer write letters. That may be because so many of us keep in touch through social media. Or maybe that people are just too busy or lazy to bother.
The remainders are surprising, though. We still exchange cards with an artist I met in Vermont 20 years ago. Haven’t seen her since. We still exchange cards with a writer I met in West Virginia in 2002. Haven’t seen her since either.
There are former neighbors in Florida, A first cousin in Alberta who I haven’t seen since I was 10. Maybe someday we’ll meet up. I also exchange cards and letters with a third cousin in Wisconsin who was very kind to send me some rare family photos.
We still get a card from my best friend in grade school. We met in Las Vegas this year.
We exchange cards with former co-workers who moved away 20 years ago, my Dad’s former secretary, family friends, a slew of college friends from Missouri whose last names begin with “S.”
Our poor card directory has experienced some changes in the four short years I’ve used this particular one. Arrows point to new addresses, some of them in nursing homes or retirement villages. Sticky notes cover up the addresses that have changed twice already, or are simply crossed out forever with the notation, “died in 2016” or “died in 2017” to give them an simple epitaph.
Every year we add recipients. Recent ones include our son’s in-laws in New York, my co-editor in Massachusetts, my niece who got married and moved to Albuquerque, a writer I met in graduate school who now teaches in Iowa.
This year we mailed cards to 15 states and four foreign lands: England, Australia, the Philippines and Canada. These and the rest of our cards were addressed, signed and sealed by Dec. 1.
If she were living, my mother would be shocked at my efficiency, but not as much as knowing it costs $1.15 to mail a card abroad. That’s as much as she would have spent for an entire box of Hallmark cards in the 1960s.
For sentimental reasons, I’ve kept our holiday card registers as a mosaic of our life and who we’ve known and cared enough to send a once-a-year correspondence. I don’t have the heart to throw them away, these dead-letter address books with their cross-outs and tracking some people’s moves in and out of houses, marriages and life.
Someday our granddaughter may find those registers and wonder about the quaint custom when people cared enough to send their holiday greetings on paper, stamped and hand-addressed.