There’s a lot about Christmas that gets me excited but the daily trip to the mailbox during the holiday season is especially fun. At least it used to be. Time was when my mailbox would be stuffed full of Christmas cards and holiday letters. But lately I’ve noticed fewer and fewer merry greetings arriving via the post. What kind of bah humbug is this?!
My latest piece, Bah Humbug: Cards, Letters and Things Remembered, appears this week in the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture.
Here’s a short excerpt:
I‘d like to report a bit of bah humbug that has me particularly troubled. In recent years, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer Christmas cards landing in my mailbox. At first, I convinced myself the reason was because we moved across the country, changing addresses after 20 years at the same location. Probably the forwarding orders expired, I told myself that first year. But the next year our annual stash of merry greetings continued to shrink. So, I did a little research.
It turns out that Christmas is the largest card-sending holiday in the United States — an estimated 1.3 billion cards sent annually by Hallmark’s calculation. Even so, fewer Americans are sending the one-time holiday staple, and analysts predict the market for traditional holiday greetings will continue to dwindle over the next several years.
According to one report by Research and Markets, “the advent of digitalization, social media platforms and messaging apps such as WhatsApp” are to blame. It seems that electronic holiday greetings have become a popular alternative to the old-fashioned glitter and foil variety. Then, there’s the cost of postage. The price of a first-class Forever stamp increased from 58 cents to 60 cents in 2022 and will tick-up another 3 cents in January. Surely the Postmaster General’s price adjustment is another incremental factor impacting my card count.
So, it’s them, not me. That’s a relief. It’s market forces at work. But maybe this Scroogey trend is the sign of an even bigger cultural shift. More research.
In fact, it’s not just the once-ubiquitous Christmas card that has taken a hit. Apparently, people in the 21st century write fewer letters overall. According to data from the U.S. Postal Service, the volume of first-class mail processed in the U.S. peaked around the year 2000, with more than 103.5 billion pieces delivered. The first-class rate is intended for personal and business correspondence, the most common way to send envelopes or lightweight packages fast and for a low-cost. USPS statistics show a steep decline in the volume of first-class mail, with a mere 50.7 billion pieces delivered in 2021. That’s half the volume from just two decades ago.
Not too surprising, mailbags started getting lighter about the same time email usage became popular among the general population. Though commonly used within business, academic, and government circles in the late 1980s, email became part of the broader pop-culture lexicon by the late-1990s. Remember the box office hit, You’ve Got Mail? The much-loved romcom starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan hit theaters in 1998, just as America’s letter writing habits began to dip.
So, the dearth of Christmas cards in my mailbox does in fact portend a more worrisome trend: the art of correspondence is being lost, victim to the immediacy of email, instant messaging, and texts. What a shame.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fully entrenched in the digital age like us all. I have a Bitmoji avatar. My monthly texting messages surpass those of my children and husband combined. And when I’m done writing this article, I will send it in an email to my editor, whom I see more often in my inbox than in person. The suggestion here is not to turn up our noses at technology. Rather, it is to pause and consider what is lost when we make the choice to tap out a few 160-character messages instead of crafting a thoughtful, hand-written note.
Putting pen to paper is more than a quaint habit of a bygone era. The value of letter writing includes historical collection, personal connection and individual reflection.