The strange, wonderful, dying art of the Christmas card

December 23, 2014 Originally published on SFGate

We had this bowl, growing up, an enormous, sterling silver thing the size of a small cauldron – probably a wedding gift to my parents from the late ‘50s – into which my mother would collect our family’s annual hoard of Christmas cards, upwards of 100 or more during the “peak” years, a hugely impressive, Rolodex-like stockpile of friendship, business pals and family love, all of it reflecting just how gregarious (and likable) my parents have been throughout their entire, astonishing six-decade marriage, and how delightful, and curious, and hey-let’s-stay-in-touch.

And every year, my mother would go through these cards – nearly all of them done up in the classic, awkwardly posed, fabulously dorky, sweater-and-a-grin white-people style – one by one, reading the updates and the personal anecdotes, and she’d coo and laugh and say oh my goodness look at the Johnson’s kids, and wow Tom sure has put on some weight, and oh no Judith’s mother passed away and the Benison’s daughter got into dental school isn’t that nice she was such a troubled and difficult child.

White people. What can you do?

White people. What can you do?

On our mother’s urging, my sisters and I would flip through these (largely foreign) names and faces, which was at once charming and sort of exhausting because, well, who are all these strange people, and why are they all wearing ill-fitting sweaters, and what’s the deal with their 17 grandkids and their knee surgery and their 1983 trip to Rome?

It was, looking back, sort of amazing, this happy, once-a-year burst of holiday-themed social reconnection so beloved by generations of yore, a pre-Internet social network of sorts, Facebook before Facebook, the Christmas card being one of the few methods available to stay in touch with distant friends and stay friendly with business associates, aside from the the (too expensive) long-distance phone call and who wants to phone people you don’t really know much anymore, and have no way of finding their phone number anyway, but about whom you’re still curious and warmly nostalgic?

A card. A card, with a nice family snapshot, maybe a short personal note. The perfect thing.

Times have changed, wildly and fast and obviously. Then again, maybe not so much.

Of course lots of people still send out real cards, pose the family either awkwardly or – in the case of a few of my more heroic friends – tremendously cleverly and sweet, write personal notes, do the whole elaborate holiday card thing. And most of these adults are, of course, over 40, meaning they appreciate and value the retro-charm of the whole thing, when getting a piece of physical mail, hand-addressed and personalized, carried a particular, cherished charge.

And now? Will “traditional” holiday cards possibly survive the downfall of the post office? Can it find a place in the age of short-attention-span social media and online photo albums, when anyone can take a family snapshot (or 100), zap it with a pre-set filter and text it to anyone else, anywhere in the world, in about four seconds flat? Doubtful. Maybe.

One easy option is to do something more along the lines of what my girl and I did this year: whip up a holiday card using one of iPhoto’s templates (or Walgreens, or Shutterfly, or whomever), have a batch printed and sent to us in two days flat, hand address them all and send them out with a flourish and an honest, deeply felt personal note.

Which is the key to the whole thing, isn’t it? The personal note. The intimate and thoughtful touch. Therein the magic. The real holiday juice. This is why my girl wanted to do in the first place: not for the photo (which they can see anywhere, including FB and my own site), but because she really wanted our friends to know how much they meant to her, and to us.


Nothing says happy holidays like a WTF cat portrait.

This is the divine gist, no? Perhaps even more important, more valuable than ever? No matter how fast, easy, sophisticated or stylish all those apps, online photo templates and sharing sites become, nothing will ever match the true personal touch, the hand-written note, the obvious time and energy it takes to create it all, from our family to yours.

Could that be the savior? The thing that never goes out of style? Holiday cards, real and printed and hand-addressed, far from vanishing into the ravenous, hyper-speed maw of modern tech, will perhaps become even more precious, valued, something to be sent only to cherished friends and loved ones because, well, everyone else can just check out your Facebook profile.

One adorable, modern twist: Some of our friends were sufficiently delighted by our card that they did the only natural thing: They took a selfie, of course, smiling and holding up our card, and texted that photo back to us, expressing their gratitude and delight.

Behold! We have hereby invented a new and strangely wonderful holiday meta-loop, a happy collision of low and high tech that, in our case anyway, left everyone smiling. Mission accomplished.

Read more here:: The strange, wonderful, dying art of the Christmas card

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford