As the Christmas season kicks into gear, seasonal debates begin anew. Is fruit cake actually good? Is it OK to open a couple of presents on Christmas Eve? When is the right time to put up the tree? Is "Die Hard" a Christmas movie?
Another one of those debates is whether or not sending Christmas cards of any kind — be they greeting cards in seasonally-colored envelopes or photo cards of people decked out in wacky Christmas gear — is still a thing we should do. Has this 19th-century practice simply run its course in an age of quick social media updates, text messages and increased environmental concern? Or is it something that can still have meaning if it's done with the right sentiment in mind?
A holiday waste
The case against sending Christmas cards is pretty straightforward. It basically boils down to the expense of the cards and that the cards themselves can be a waste, both of time and resources.
First, there's the cost. Greeting cards for any occasion average between $2 and $5 for a basic, no-frills card. And sure, you can buy a box of cards and shave that price down, but still. Add in something that has pop-ups, light-ups or music that plays when someone opens it, and the cost can come close to $10. Even the average cost can seem a little high for a bit of paper and some pat well-wishes (The Atlantic did a nice write-up about pricing and costs for greeting cards in 2013, if you'd like a deeper dive into the topic), resulting in people wondering why they have to spend that much. Factor in postage — a single U.S. forever stamp currently costs 50 cents, but will increase to 55 cents at the end of January 2019 — suddenly this quick way of expressing your holiday appreciation for someone costs too much.
Second is the issue of waste. In the abstract, there's the wasted sense of time spent selecting the card, signing it and stuffing it in an envelope. Then, for the amount of money an average card costs, it seems like a waste of time to buy someone a folded piece of paper that they're going to read once and almost certainly chuck in the trash or the recycling bin. Which leads to the other kind of waste: a little over 2.5 billion Christmas cards are sold each year in the U.S. According to Stanford University, that's enough cards to fill a football field 10 stories high.
That's a lot of garbage, especially during a holiday that produces a lot of waste already, from food waste to just the act of giving stuff to people that they may not need, let alone actually want. The act of buying a card just perpetuates that consumerism impulse of the season, even if it's on a slightly smaller scale. It's easier to simply send a text, make a phone call, post a quick message on social media or send an e-card. EcoCards.org allows you to send a card for a donation to various charities, including the Humane Society of of the United States. (A $10 commitment is required to set up an account.) Not in the U.S.? No problem. DontSendMeACard.com does the same thing for U.K.-based charities for the cost of what buying a card and mailing it would.
But what about tradition?
While the case against sending Christmas cards relies on practicalities of money, time and the environment, those who support the tradition make a forceful emotional and sentimental appeal.
Writing in The Federalist, Cheryl Magness outlines a few reasons why a physically mailed card is the way to go. First, there's simply the ability to actually touch a card in the way you can't touch a social media post or an email, and that you can touch it in the future, too, provided you save the card. Second, Magness says not everyone is on social media, or uses it regularly, limiting the impact of the post.
Third, there's just the actual act of writing in a card as a moment of reflection, almost mindfulness. "What to include? What to leave out? The permanence of ink on paper seems to engender a greater level of attention and care for what one shares," Magness writes. "The words you write have the potential to make a significant difference in someone's life today or years hence when your letter is rediscovered and read. Don't take it lightly. Make it good, make it honest, and make it you."
This way of thinking about the card can help the person receiving it, but it also helps the writer get in touch with their own feelings. So even if the card doesn't necessarily impact the person who receives it, the sender got something out of the experience.
In an article from AZCentral, they rounded up the replies to the question of whether or not to send cards from groups on Facebook, and the sentiments encompassed that sending a card shows the sender took more time to click a button on a website, that cards can help decorate a house and that even if the card will be tossed aside, getting one in the mail is still a delight.
Oh, just try it
There's no clear winner in this debate since so much relies on your personal priorities. Ultimately, you can, and should, do what works best for you. If you want to try sending Christmas cards, there's a way to do it that won't break the bank or make you feel too bad about the potential waste component.
Think about who you want to send a card to, and narrow the list down to around five or six people. Skip the major retailers and go to your local dollar store. There, you can get individual cards for $1, or sometimes two for $1. If you don't want to pick out individual cards, these stores may also have six to 10 of the same card in a box, also for a $1. With the price pressure off a bit, take your time considering the card or cards to buy. Weigh the image on the front and the pre-written statement inside.
Alternatively, prioritize blank cards instead. These will force you write something specific to the person you're sending the card to instead of relying on what someone else has written and signing your name at the bottom. You can — and should — still write something personal even if the statement is already written inside the card.
If this process works for you, if it adds something to your year, consider doing it again next year and expanding your list. Continue shopping at the dollar store for your cards, or spend the year learning how to make your own cards for an extra personal touch. If you're worried about the environmental impact, add a cheeky note at the end that encourages the receiver to recycle it.