Holiday cards see role reversal

From the time she was in her 20s, Karen Robison sent out holiday cards to a list of friends and family members that grew over the decades to well past 200 names. So now that she’s 75, how many cards does she mail each Christmas season?

“I don’t send them,” said Robison, a retired registered nurse who moved with her husband, Karl Bucholz, to Eskaton Village Carmichael in early 2009. “And I get fewer and fewer cards now, too.

“Sending out Christmas cards was a big job. I always wrote notes on the cards. It’s like the way I used to entertain, with the linen and crystal. How I did that working full time, I don’t know. Now life is simpler.”

The generational trend in sending season’s greetings is perhaps counterintuitive: Far from clinging tightly to the traditions of the past, many older adults have retired from the practice of exchanging holiday cards – while younger people are finding new ways to embrace the card tradition as a sign of their maturity.

Their methods may sound unconventional. Some painstakingly craft their own cards, but many others send personalized e-card holiday messages flitting out through cyberspace with a few clicks on the keyboard.

The number of cards landing in mailboxes has dwindled in recent decades. The Greeting Card Association estimates that 1.6 billion holiday cards will be purchased this season, down from 2.5 billion in 2001. In 1966, the golden age of handwritten holiday greetings, the number was 3.5 billion.

Association President Steve Doyal said his group specifically tracks only the volume of cards purchased, not the demographic breakdown of who’s buying (and presumably sending) them. But industry research indicates that sending some sort of holiday greeting to friends and family tends to coincide in large part with life stages: Younger people, in the bloom of new marriage and parenthood, want to share their blessings.

“Generally, the moment in time that a young woman marries or has her first child is the time that she begins accepting the mantle of being the glue that holds the family together,” said Doyal, a Hallmark Cards senior vice president. “It’s a very busy time in her life, but you want to capture or celebrate all those events. She becomes more engaged in our category at that time.”

In other words, she compiles her first Christmas card list and starts mailing the cards, or so greeting card retailers hope.

On Black Friday, while much of the world shopped, Sacramento resident Robyn Miller sat in front of her laptop, logged onto a greeting card site, loaded a cute photo of her little boy, typed in a holiday message, formatted envelopes for a mailing list of more than 100 and printed everything out – and presto, she had the cards in the mail by early December.

Now that she has a son, 1-year-old Eli, she thinks it’s important to embrace the Christmas card tradition.

“It was so easy to do,” said Miller, 39, a student at McGeorge Law School. “I didn’t even sign the card. Maybe that’s a little impersonal. My mother used to write out the cards by hand. But at least I’m doing it.”

These days, though, an increasing number of people turn to online methods instead. While Doyal said the growth of the e-card industry has flattened, statistics show that about half a million electronic cards – with dancing elves and glowing reindeer and ho-ho-hoing Santas – are emailed each Christmas.

And that number doesn’t take into account what some experts consider to be the fastest-growing segment of the holiday greetings market: the festive Christmas email, an online Christmas letter with kids’ pictures uploaded, sent instantly to a long, long list of email contacts.

“It saves postage,” said University of Texas economics professor Daniel Hamermesh, who in 2010 wrote a blog post on online holiday greetings on the Freakonomics blog. “You don’t have to buy a card. You can do it later and procrastinate. And it saves time. I can do them very quickly, rather than write out an envelope by hand.”

But why send holiday cards or email letters at all when you’ve spent the past 365 days posting kids’ photos and family updates to many hundreds of your nearest and dearest on Facebook and other social media sites? If ease is the point, wouldn’t sending a cheery Christmas text be even easier?

“The underlying issue is value,” said Hamermesh. “If you give somebody time, you’re giving them something of value. So many changes we’ve observed have to do with the fact that time is more valuable now. Who sends cards and what kind of cards they send is really a reflection of that.”

While many of Jordan Powers’ peers never bother to send Christmas cards at all, she goes retro: The 26-year-old, who writes the Crazy Life of J lifestyle blog and recently moved from Chicago to Kentucky, designs and makes her own cards, which she sends to a list of about 30 people.

“I don’t fault friends and family who don’t send them,” she said, “but I was up at midnight last night handwriting Christmas cards with a fountain pen.”

She cherishes her childhood memories of watching her mother pen handwritten notes on the holiday cards she sent each year, and she wants to carry on the tradition.

“There’s definitely a drop in how people feel about Christmas cards,” said Powers. “You don’t have to have a handwritten letter now.

“My friends laugh at me. Between the Christmas cards and still carrying a Filofax and my crocheting, I joke that I’m secretly 85.”

In truth, many people in their 80s have given up sending Christmas cards.

Pat Beal, executive director of the Senior Center of Elk Grove, said some elderly people have hands crippled by arthritis, which makes it hard for them to spend time writing cards the way they used to. Other seniors, living on fixed incomes, can’t afford to buy cards and spend the postage. And still others don’t have transportation to the mall or to the post office.

“I think the practice of sending cards is dropping off among seniors because of the price,” said Beal. “If we bring cards in to the center for our seniors, they snap them up. They’re glad to send them, but they can’t always afford them.

“To me, Christmas cards are a great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I remember you and I remember what the season’s about.’ But many seniors just can’t do it any more.”

At 75, Beal usually sends out cards – but she didn’t manage to do it last year, she said, because her husband had died a few months earlier.

Just as new life circumstances can lead a younger generation to share their lives through some sort of holiday greeting, so can the experiences of older age put an end to the Christmas card tradition. A joy can become a chore – or a bittersweet reminder of the past.

“I stopped sending them about the time my husband died,” said Barbara Metzinger, 82, who lives in Carmichael. “I talk to my friends and family often. I just don’t feel the need to send Christmas cards.”

With 13 grandkids and 13 great-grandkids, Metzinger has a houseful of relatives over for breakfast every Christmas morning. The family is close. But after her husband of 60 years’ time died in 2007, she gave up the holiday card habit.

“I always did a lot of Christmas cards,” she said. “It was a ritual. I started in late November, and I had my little address book. I always had to write something to every person.

“I stopped because it was taking too much time. Everybody sent cards at one time. Now not many of my friends send cards, either.”

Karen Robison meant to, during the holiday season of 2008. But she and her husband were in the midst of selling their house in the Midwest and moving to California. That year, she never got around to her Christmas card list.

“I thought I’d do them here, and of course, I didn’t,” she said. “I was meeting new people. Somehow the year went by, and it didn’t seem all that important.”

She sends an emailed card to a few dozen friends that she and Bucholz have made on their travels around the globe. Otherwise, as a few holiday cards trickle in from friends who still send them, Robison calls the senders to wish them happy holidays.

These days, the couple’s apartment is filled with Christmas decorations: a tree covered with tiny white lights, a poinsettia, Santa salt-and-pepper shakers displayed on a table.

“Things get so hectic, even in a retirement center,” said Robison. “I’m living in the moment with the people I see here. That seems more important than sending cards.”