Prone Christmas trees line the sidewalks. Sometime soon last year's calendars will be replaced. Next, the collection of this year's holiday cards will be gathered up and put away.  

Or maybe not. Maybe you're among those who dabbled with the idea of replacing traditional holiday paper cards with electronic cards or found your fireplace mantel a little less crowded this year. If that's the case, you're not alone.

While the Greeting Card Association reports that Americans buy 7 billion greeting cards annually, and on average people in this country receive 20 cards each a year, the greeting card industry has begun tracking the growing popularity of e-cards.

They estimate that some 500 million of the electronic missives are sent worldwide annually, and like paper cards, are most popular during the holidays, particularly in December. This rise in popularity appears to have two origins: a cultural shift toward computers and a concern for the environment in the form of paper consumption.

Robb Waterman, CEO of one of the first e-card sites and one that snagged the domain name e-cards.com, said when his company started in 1995, "We didn't think about replacing paper cards, but did think of it as environmentally sensitive." Waterman started experimenting with e-cards when he found he couldn't send photos by e-mail to friends in Europe.

Clearly technology has overcome that limit, and e-card use has only grown.

This December Maureen White, 35, says she received an e-Christmas card from her younger cousin that started out, "To save the postal carriers' legs, I have opted to send out an E-Christmas card. In reality, I have very few of my friends and family's actual postal addresses these days because I was born in 1980, and us Gen Y'ers are concerned with speed and convenience. 99% of what I do is on the computer!"

White says, "The card was really nice and had tons of pictures from his life. I'm sure it took him a while to put it together." Nonetheless the greeting generated some lighthearted heckling from one recipient. Someone on her cousin's list hit "reply all" with the playful note, "Get a wife and send a real card."

But according to American Greetings — the largest paper and e-card company in the world — women, men, husbands, young and old are among the 2 million people paying $13.99 a year to subscribe to the company's e-card service. Its 30,000 e-cards range from still photos, audio-video clips, and the means to create your own card.

That’s what Carolyn Hampton, 45, received this year, "I got an e-card that was actually a link to YouTube. My friend uploaded a video of her three kids."

E-card popularity might primarily reflect our increasing dependence on the Internet, but it does have green benefits. A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation finds 7 billion cards equals about 2.5 million trees, although the number varies based on the type and amount of paper used in each card. 

For some, the conservation factor is important. Josie Glausiusz, 42, used e-cards to send holiday greetings for the first time this year saying, "It's saving paper," she says. "Mind you, it takes energy to run your computer, but I'd be using that anyway as it's on pretty much all day for work."

She also noted that one of her friends chose not to send any paper cards this year and instead gave a sizable donation to Doctors Without Borders. She sent an e-mail to her friends explaining her decision and wished them all a happy and peaceful New Year.

"Basically, I'm happy when any friend remembers me, whether postally or not, so why would I care if someone e-mails me or sends me a card?" Glausiusz says.

But some people do care and feel strongly that paper cards are a special part of their holiday. "At my house like others, real Christmas cards are often set out on the mantel or some other conspicuous place. That can't be done with e-cards," says David Mitchell of West Marin, Calif.

The paper greeting card industry would concur and stresses that e-cards are not replacing the traditional paper card industry — only expanding it.

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008