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Essay: IN (FAINT) PRAISE OF CHRISTMAS CARDS

6 minute read
Philip Herrera

NO, there is no escaping Christmas cards, not even in these days of recession. For better or worse, they have become one of America’s unavoidable, conventional and yet curiously revelatory means of communication. Seemingly carriers of good will, their messages are both specialized and highly descriptive of the condition of U.S. society. The ready availability of MERRY CHRISTMAS, GREAT-GRANDMOTHER cards tells a lot about the longevity of the modern female; great-grandfather cards, by contrast, are less easy to find. Ethnic cards with black, brown or yellow Santas testify to the fact that the American melting pot is still bubbling, despite gloomy assertions to the contrary. Some cards even display the extent to which the celebration of Jesus’ birth has become a festival for non-Christians. One this year contains a poem called ‘Twas the Night Before Chanukah, which ends with a jolly fat man in “a little red yamalke” urging his reindeer into the night:

Now Izzie! Now Morris! Now Louis! And Sammy! On Irving! And Maxie! And Hymie and Manny!

On the statistical average, each American adult this season will send, and receive, at least 15 cards. That means the bells of stationery store cash registers will ring up U.S. sales of $300 million this Christmas−glad tidings to about 200 card companies. Like the automakers, the card publishers alter their models annually. Some cards now laud the joys of grass−not the kind that suburbanites mow. Others pay jovial tribute to Women’s Lib: YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS AND FOR ONE THING SHE IS FAT. The themes of “love” and “youth”−perhaps as an indirect tribute to Mr. Agnew−have replaced “peace” as the most prevalent messages this year. But most cards, as always, aim at traditional sentimentality, unabashedly celebrating the permanence of that emotion in a changing world.

To find the proper message, shoppers can browse for hours. The plethora of choice includes specific cards with appropriate illustrations for family and lovers, ministers and nuns, baby sitters and teachers, and homosexuals−both male and female. Beyond that, there are nuances to weigh. Should a card be heavily embossed, or wear what the card companies refer to as “flitter” (a grainy sparkle) or “flock” (a fuzzy felt)? And which is most appropriate: TO MY DOCTOR, TO A FINE DOCTOR, Or TO A WONDERFUL DOCTOR?

Hallmark, American Greetings, Norcross and other card companies know precisely what they are doing. With the help of market research and psychological expertise, they have isolated no fewer than 3,000 “sending situations,” that define the basic religious and emotional needs of both sender and recipient. One card, for example, is designed to calm the nervous traveler with best wishes “from takeoff till landing.” Another transmits to a permanent invalid “loving thoughts of you”−tactfully avoiding the conventional “get well quick.” CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW PAD, says a card for blacks, THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD.

It is understandably fashionable these days to decry greeting cards, for Christmas and other occasions, as illogical, frivolous and unnecessary. Indeed, there is something faintly ridiculous about sending a card to fellow office workers whom one sees every day or to friends and relatives who will be more personally remembered by gifts or a gluttonous family dinner. Still, these canned messages might well be authentic mirrors of the Middle American psyche. Moreover, doggerel composed by anonymous poetasters may compensate for the emotional inarticulateness of many people who simply lack skill with words. Consider a message such as:

Some things mean so much to us We can’t express them well. We can’t put into words the thoughts Our hearts would like to tell. So when you read this Christmas card That comes to you today I hope you’ll read between the lines The things my heart would say.

On the long-distance phone, that sort of generalization would sound hollow, crass and unbearably phony, even at 450 a minute. But in a card−well, it resounds.

Personal letters, most people know, can be great liars, because they expose only the best qualities of their senders. What about Christmas cards? The lie no longer matters. It has been institutionalized and glistens with cool professionalism. Thus the buyer can guiltlessly sign someone else’s platitude and blithely send it as his own generous thought:

I wish you all the merriment That can fill a Christmas day And I hope the Christmas season Brings special joys your way.

In other words, I’m still alive and well.

According to Webster Schott, a vice president of Hallmark (and a critic of some repute), “verse is still more popular than prose, by a margin of five to one. And human affection will outsell humor twenty to one.” Still, it is humor that freshens the stale feast of Christmas messages. The wit, alas, is often insipid self-parody−I BRING YOU GREETINGS . . . THAT’S ALL, JUST GREETINGS. But when they are good, the funny cards exemplify the peculiarly American gift for one-line gags. “LEON! LEON!” sings a caroler, who hurriedly explains, “I MEAN NOEL! NOEL! (Sorry, my music was backwards).” A card with the message IF A BIG FAT MAN CREEPS IN SOME NIGHT AND STUFFS YOU INTO A BAG, DON’T WORRY … I TOLD SANTA I WANTED YOU FOR CHRISTMAS! has a nice urban flavor in these times of worry about law-and-order.

References to sex, booze and excrement, although hardly in the yuletide spirit, are nonetheless used for their Rabelaisian potential. Most do not bear quoting, but here is a mild example: EXTENDING THE SEASON’S GREETINGS AND EXPRESSING THE HOPE THAT OUR CARNAL RELATIONSHIP MAY CONTINUE FOR MANY YEARS TO COME. By buying nonseasonal cards, the frustrated shopper might even be able to vent the hostility that Christmas pressures frequently evoke. LET ME GET ANGRY JUST ONCE WITHOUT APOLOGIZING FOR IT would seem a suitable sentiment for family and loved ones, I DON’T LIKE YOU would do for any number of minions who expect tips.

What is left for Christmas cards to say? Absolutely nothing. Even blessed silence has been preempted by cards showing misty photos of sunsets, seascapes and embracing lovers. The message is left blank. Which of course does not make the slightest difference. With cards, the medium is the message. When all is said and grumbled about, to receive them is to be grateful. Merry Christmas.

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