Forget the Holiday Boomerang

When I set out to buy this year’s holiday card supplies, I asked my fiancée how many cards she would be needing.

“Nine,” she said.

Nine? But last year she sent 25 cards?

“Only nine people sent me cards,” she said.

Ever since my fiancée and I began celebrating the holidays together, I have noticed curious differences between my Canadian and her Euro-African seasonal attitudes. Here was one more: a naive expectation that you will receive as many holiday cards as you send.

The fact that card senders usually find themselves at a deficit seemed like an accepted fact to me, but just to be sure I conducted an informal survey of some of the most conscientious members of my card circle. Sure enough, a strong pattern emerged: dedicated holiday card senders usually get back between a quarter and a third of the cards they send. Crystalle, an artist who has just moved to the Boston area, is an avowed ‘holiday card etiquette freak’ and has been sending out between 100 and 120 hand-made cards every year for the past 15 years. She receives an average of 20 – 25 cards and has noticed that “even older people who used to be sure bets are sitting out the snail mail tradition.” Another reliable sender has been my cousin Amanda who works at a publishing house in Toronto. She sends out an average of 40 cards and receives an average of 10, and like Crystalle simply accepts the imbalance. “I generally don’t trim people. Once you’re on the list, you can never get off. Ever.”

But the real gold mine of card data comes from my father. He has been keeping detailed lists of his holiday card activity since 1979. Some sample years:

1980 – 19 sent, 17 received (8 of whom I did not send to)

1997 – 44 sent, 14 received (all of whom I sent to)

2005 – 38 sent, 19 received (5 of whom I did not send to)

My father says that since the glory days of the 1980s when holiday cards meant something, he feels lucky if he gets a 30 per cent return rate.

So, how should we holiday card partisans feel about these diminished returns? Should we trim people from our lists? Should we throw up our arms and forget the whole process? Should we remember the true pleasure is in giving? Whom better to turn for such advice than North America’s most trusted etiquette experts, the Emily Post Institute. I had the great pleasure to speak with Anna Post, Emily’s great-great-granddaughter and the author of her own etiquette books. She says that she traditionally receives less than half the holiday cards she sends but that this shouldn’t be discouraging.

“Holiday cards are not boomerangs, it’s not about what’s coming back to you,” Anna says. “The broader picture here, the reason we do this is in the spirit of the holidays, which is reaching out and maintaining ties.”

(Don’t think Anna is just a softie; when it comes to holiday presents, she says if you don’t receive a thank-you note, cut that person from you list, with children getting only a one-year free pass on the thank-you note!)

The bottom line is that if you care about somebody and you’re a card sender, send them a card. And, I am extremely happy to say that as a result of these holiday card reflections, my fiancée ended up sending out 28 cards this year. On that note, a very merry holiday season to all of you.

About Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer is an author and translator who lives in in the Luberon with his fiancée, two children, five cats, two chickens, ten fish, and one pregnant dog. He is currently on the market for a cheap horse. More at http://www.jeremymercer.net
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