IT was 1843 and Englishman Henry Cole was late sending the customary Christmas letter. He turned in haste to an artist who produced an alternative - the first Christmas card. This year 2.3 billion will be exchanged in the United States - up from 2.1 billion in 1985 - out of 7.2 billion cards of all kinds, predicts the Greeting Card Association in Washington. Women buy 70 percent of all Christmas cards and 90 percent of all cards. Men buy fewer cards for Christmas than they do for Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. The average household will buy 65 Christmas cards and receive 26.
The bestsellers are traditional scenes, Christmas trees, wreaths, and art scenes, says Terry Carney at American Greeting in Cleveland, the No. 2 card company in the US. But there's something for everyone: a black Santa Claus, messages in Spanish (Hispanic customers buy most heavily on Mother's Day), and cards made from recycled paper.
The most popular greeting, says Rachel Bolton of industry leader Hallmark Cards Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., is good old ``Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,'' just as was sketched on Cole's original a century and a half ago.
The fastest-growing segment of counter card sales are ``special caption'' - For Mother and Her Husband, For a Great Baby-Sitter, For a Wonderful Manicurist, To a Great Hair Stylist - directed to nontraditional recipients. Hallmark's Ms. Bolton says this trend reflects the changes in the American family. Some reflect the elevated status of pets - From the Dog, From One Special Pet To Another.
Not only have the names on the outside changed, the sentiment inside has changed, too. Last year's most popular Christmas card for fathers was one of apology - with a message of reconciliation and appreciation. These more communicative cards, says Bolton, reflect the open spirit of the '60s during which the Baby Boomers - the 25- to 40-year-olds who are most likely to send personal messages - came of age.
``They serve as icebreakers, as conversation starters ... and give a person a place to write a little personal note,'' she says.
As always, the United States Postal Service recommends mailing early. But today's Henry Coles can take heart: This year the Post Office will deliver on Christmas Day - but only letters sent by Express Mail.