The holiday greeting from the White House told the grievous story: Save for a slim red border at the bottom, the card was winter white, with no hint of color or Christmas, and embossed only with a stark U.S. seal: a bald eagle encircled by stars. On the inside, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the first lady's printed message was for a happy new year and either "a Blessed Christmas" or "Season's Greetings."
The new president and Lady Bird Johnson sent the cards in December 1963, the month of official mourning following the Nov. 22 assassination of John F. Kennedy, said Mary Evans Seeley, author of "Season's Greetings From the White House: The Collection of Presidential Christmas Cards, Messages and Gifts" (1996). In a memo dated five days after Kennedy's death, the State Department's chief of protocol had recommended that the Johnsons extend the holiday greetings; their limited Christmas card list included government leaders in the U.S. and abroad.
Thirty-eight years later, George W. and Laura Bush have vowed to mail hundreds of thousands of cards, keeping with a presidential tradition unbroken by war or other national crises since Herbert Hoover in 1929, according to Seeley's records. But this season, Americans--including President Bush and the first lady--are rethinking the once-routine matter of holiday cards: Given the proximity to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, what kind of end-of-the-year greeting is appropriate? And given fears of anthrax contamination, as remote as it may be, what is the best way to send the cards?
In the last 100-plus years, holiday cards have been used in some circles to send a statement--supporting recycled paper products, for instance, or a charitable cause--or a snapshot of the times, whether it be the somber mood of a nation following the slaying of a U.S. president or a proud portrait of a World War I doughboy infantryman.
The Bushes' 2001 card will include a change that points to how even the minutiae of holiday ritual are not immune to reverberations from the terrorist attacks. Recently, according to the first lady's press office, Mrs. Bush decided to change the Bible verse on their cards to one with a more appropriate tone. She won't reveal her original choice, but the message inside the card now reads: "Thy face, Lord, do I seek: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!"--Psalm 27: 8, 13, and sends the greeting,"May happiness be yours during this season of goodwill and may the New Year bring peace on Earth. 2001." (In the famous psalm, David says he will remain confident and trust in God when "when evildoers assail me" and "though war arise against me," explained the Rev. Donald Colhour of Wilshire Christian Church in Los Angeles.)
Early shoppers are requesting boxed holiday cards with red, white and blue images such as flag-waving snowmen or symbols of peace such as doves. A graphic designer in New York City is selling holiday "remembrance" cards featuring a nighttime image of the World Trade Center and the words "season's greetings" printed in red, white and blue. Santa Barbara-based EthnoGraphics rushed out a card of children rallying under the American flag on a snowy night to department stores including Bloomingdale's and Macy's.
In another shift, even though anthrax anxieties are beginning to fade, some traditional card buyers are switching to e-mail greetings. Others are ordering translucent vellum envelopes in record numbers from a specialty paper company in Centerville, Ohio, so the contents of their mailings will be visible.
At Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, stationery buyer Shawn Gaines noticed that shoppers are putting more time into their selections. One couple inspected the offerings for hours. Another woman made two visits to peruse the shelves. "She was very concerned about the [inside] greeting because of the state of the world right now," Gaines said. "'I really want [a card] that's going to mean something,"' the shopper told her.
Tujunga resident Bethany Johnson, 19, usually shops for a holiday card with a funny theme or "Far Side" gag. But a merry card doesn't seem right when the memory of such dramatic loss is so fresh. "Before, it didn't really matter," she said. "In the end, [the card] was going to make them laugh for a minute. Then they would forget about it. This time, I think, it's going to matter what it says ... you really don't want to touch someone the wrong way."
At the Emily Post Institute, which studies questions of etiquette, spokeswoman Peggy Post is trying to ease anxieties about hitting upon the proper holiday greeting for 2001. There are no set rules, other than to avoid sending a lighthearted card to someone who recently lost a loved one. "If it feels right for the sender, it's the right decision," said Post, who is married to Emily Post's great-grandson. Along with dropping cards in the mail, which Post plans to do, it is acceptable to convey holiday wishes by telephone, visit or e-mail, she said.