Oh, Christmas, the season when an exchange of greetings can be as fraught with decisions as an exchange of gifts.
At one end of the spectrum is Andy Bleck, a United Parcel Service driver from Silver Spring, Md., who still follows a cherished family tradition of making dozens of elaborate Christmas cards by hand, just as his father and uncles once did. At the other end is trend forecaster Gerald Celente of Rhinebeck, N.Y., who hasn't sent a holiday card in 15 years.
In between are those who buy their cards and write a personal note on each, and those who just scrawl their names at the bottom. Some dispatch humorous-serious computer-generated newsletters recapping the year's highlights (substitute "tedious" and "boastful" where applicable), while others just send out an annual picture of the kids playing at the beach or a family portrait of everyone (including the dog) in matching garb. There are those who seek to "put the Christ back in Christmas" with religious cards and those who prefer the secular and profane.
But it is interesting in these frazzled times to acknowledge the staying power of a tradition born in London in 1843, when Henry Cole produced 1,000 copies of a John Callcott Horsley lithograph of a family gathered around a holiday table. The message of that first card was simple: "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."
Neither the advent of e-mail tidings in the late 1990s nor postage increases nor even a fear of anthrax-laced letters in 2001 has greatly stemmed the annual flood of holiday cards. Though the numbers have fluctuated over the years, paper cards are holding their own.
In 1987, the average American household received 29 pieces of Christmas mail, said U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gerry McKiernan. By 1994, the number dropped to 23. In 2002 it bounced back to 27, but a year later fell to fewer than 20 cards per household. In 2004 it rose to 21.6 cards. And this year? It is expected to remain stable at about 21.5 cards, he said.
The 2002 spike occurred despite a two-cent hike in the cost of a first-class stamp that June, McKiernan said. "Then when the rate was stable the next year, volume went down. Go figure. Last year postage was still 37 cents and the numbers went up."
Although independent statistics are hard to find, Hallmark -- which tops the greeting card market with a 50% share -- calls Christmas its biggest holiday by far, with the majority of its business done in the fourth quarter.
The company predicts "pretty stable, pretty flat" industrywide sales of 2 billion holiday cards this year, up from 1.9 billion last year, said Deidre Parkes, a Hallmark spokeswoman.
And there is no corporate fretting over e-cards, which are vastly outnumbered by paper cards by a ratio of 20 to 1, after peaking in the late 1990s, according to Parkes.
Nonetheless, to cover their bases, Hallmark and mega-competitor American Greetings have staked out territory in the e-mail market with dancing reindeer and singing elves.
"E-cards are a fun and casual communication. But especially at Christmas, what people want to see is a bit more serious in nature," Parkes said. Paper cards "are keepsakes. People display them, they share them with other family members. You know the moms who save every card they ever got from their kids."
Barbara Miller is spokeswoman for the Washington-based Greeting Card Assn., which represents 300 card publishers. She said the "vast majority" of Christmas cards are personal, not business-related.
"We see card-sending falling into two very broad categories: in celebration of the religious holiday, where we are seeing a little more Christian and inspirational imagery.... For secular cards, snowmen seem to be big this year, sophisticated or understated imagery, a wreath, a single reindeer, a star of Bethlehem," she said.
Miller noted a shift toward holiday ecumenism, with "a slight increase in mixed-faith cards that celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah." This year, in fact, both holidays fall on Dec. 25.
Those in the paper card camp split naturally into factions: purists who make their own cards and those who buy commercial greetings.
Indeed, all the talk about trends in mass-produced cards matters little to Andy Bleck, who has been crafting homemade ones since childhood.
His wife, Kim, was baffled by the tradition when they married 10 years ago. "My first reaction was, 'Are you nuts? I am the most uncreative person in the world. Why can't we just buy cards?' " she recalled. "Although I bought some to send out to my side of the family, once we had our first child, I said, 'Let me try to get into this, because it's not going away.' "
Then there are the newsletter partisans. Never mind that they're often the butt of jokes about the self-important minutiae they feel compelled to share every December. For these people, a brief note under the store-bought sentiment -- never mind a mere signature -- just won't do.