This month, Americans are digging out their mailing lists and checking them twice to start in on a century-old tradition--the exchange of holiday greeting cards.
Americans will send a projected 2.2 billion holiday cards this year, and like the Victorian-era lithograph that launched the custom, these cards constitute an important social ritual, according to a psychologist.
"One reason people give cards is to get them," said R. Chris Martin of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, "because when you get a card it's like keeping the path to your door open."
The first holiday card was mailed in 1843, three years after the British Penny Postage Act made it possible to send mail for a penny stamp. The sender was London businessman Henry Cole, who asked a friend, artist John Calcott Horsley, to design a holiday card.
Horsley came up with a triptych of familiar holiday scenes. The center panel showed family members at a festive dinner table raising their glasses in a toast; the side panels illustrated the charitable tradition of Christmas--feeding the hungry and clothing the needy.
The card bore the inscription, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You," which, according to Hallmark Cards, remains the most popular holiday card greeting.
That simple sentiment has not worn out from use. Although the task of signing and addressing cards can seem endless--and postage prices have risen since the 1843 penny stamp--holiday greeting cards continue to swamp the postal system each December.
And according to Martin, most of these cards wind up on display in the homes of recipients because people like to see a physical reminder of how many caring friends and family members they have.
Martin believes that people send cards not out of a feeling of obligation but because they are in genuinely good spirits during the holiday season. "People like for others to feel as good as they feel," he said. " 'I'm happy--and I want you to be happy too' is what a card says."
In addition to reaffirming old friendships, holiday cards provide an unmatched opportunity to rejuvenate relationships. "It's a way to renew past acquaintances without the need to explain why there's been no contact for so long," Martin explained.
For those who wonder how this longstanding tradition has adapted to modern social mores, Hallmark Cards offers the following guidelines to holiday card etiquette:
--When sending a card to a couple with two different last names, address it to "Mary Smith and John Jones." If there are children, address the card to "Mary Smith, John Jones and Family."
--Many divorcees resume their maiden name. Find out which name and courtesy title they prefer.
--If you're sending cards to business associates, use their office addresses. Cards should only be mailed to the home address if you see that person socially, or if you have met the person's spouse or partner.
--Parents should include the names of their children when signing cards to friends and family members.
--If the card is from more than one person, the person who signs should write his name last as a gesture of courtesy.
--Personalize your cards by including a short handwritten note. If your name is imprinted on the card, sign it anyway.
--Keep your signature informal. It is not proper to include courtesy titles in your signature. When sending cards to relatives and close friends, there is no need to include your last name in the signature.
--If you have friends of different religious denominations, stay away from cards that focus on Christmas or Hanukkah. The safest choice is a non-religious card with a neutral message such as "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."
--Make sure your cards arrive on time by mailing them as soon after Thanksgiving as possible. Send the cards first class so they will be forwarded if the addressee has moved.
--Make life easier for the Postal Service by putting your return address on each envelope. This will also help your friends keep their mailing lists up to date.
--Many people agonize over whether they should send cards to new acquaintances or long-lost friends. Remember you are not obligated to write to everyone you know. A Christmas card should be sincere and personal; if you don't share the sentiment, don't send it.