The pleasant little thud of holiday mail

Today, the exchange of Christmas cards is an annual affirmation of important personal connections.

One of the best sounds of any day is the little thud the mail makes as it drops into the mailbox. Seldom is that thud more welcome than in December as Christmas cards begin trickling in.

Like the first robin of spring, the first holiday card signals a new season. It also marks the beginning of an annual affirmation of personal connections that, in a fast-paced world, is becoming more important than ever.

It was an Englishman, Sir Henry Cole, who set the stage for this honored ritual by sending the first Christmas cards in London in 1843. In 1875, Louis Prang, a lithographer near Boston, printed the first Christmas card for American customers. It featured a simple flower design with the words "Merry Christmas."

As if to signal just how much these early cards meant, my great-grandfather, hardly a sentimentalist, tucked a Christmas card from the children's piano teacher in his diary on Dec. 24, 1912. A graceful holly design frames the message, printed in ornate type: "Christmas Greetings. At this glad time when hope and memory wake, I greet you lovingly for old sake's sake." It was signed "Best wishes from Bertha M. Darling." My great-grandfather wrote in his diary, "Had a nice Xmas card from Mrs. D."

In Mrs. D's era, choosing a card would have been relatively simple. Now motifs and messages abound. Traditional or contemporary? Formal or funny? Angels or Santa? Snowy fields or glowing hearths? The list goes on. And what card shopper doesn't know the disappointment of finding the right design but the wrong greeting? As for stamps: Religious or secular?

Decisions, decisions.

Yet none of these details really matter to recipients. What counts the most to them is a printed letter or handwritten message updating them on the sender's news, perhaps with a photo for good measure.

Ask a random sampling of people about Christmas cards, and you'll get an outpouring of comments about just what this tradition means. Some follow the same rituals each year as they write, perhaps spreading out lists, cards, and stamps at the dining room table, putting on a Christmas CD, and picking up a favorite green pen. Others maintain traditions for displaying cards – placing them in a favorite basket, standing them on the mantel, taping them to a door.

Whatever the routines, Christmas cards invariably raise a few questions of protocol. If you receive a card from someone you haven't included on your list, for example, should you quickly mail one to them?

The poet Richard Armour speaks for legions of card senders when he writes: "You cannot reach perfection, though you try however hard to, there's always one more friend or so you should have sent a card to."

Probably no Christmas would be complete without at least one card arriving after the big day, carrying a breathless apology: "Sorry to be late." Not to worry. The timing isn't important, as long as the card arrives.

But sometimes an expected card never comes at all. Christmas cards serve as a barometer of people's lives. An empty-handed recipient can only wonder: Have we been crossed off their list? Or is something going on in their lives? Very often it's the latter – a separation or divorce, a job loss or an illness that kept them from writing. Next year's card – a welcome sight! – will explain, and the exchange will resume.

Generational changes are under way. Websites offering free e-mail Christmas cards appeal to younger senders. Even so, Americans will exchange an estimated 2 billion holiday cards this year, the Greeting Card Association reports – a figure it says has been holding fairly steady in recent years.

As a child, I looked forward to the December mail each day. Reading my parents' cards offered early lessons in the value of connections and lasting relationships. There was always a card and note from my mother's junior high Latin teacher, another from a sorority sister, another from a college roommate of my father's. Far-flung friends sent photos of babies and children, and missives detailing family triumphs and travails. What treasures they all were!

Today, cards from our own friends provide the same comforting continuity. The unspoken message floating between senders and receivers is always the same: We're thinking of you and wishing you well.

It's a message that can sustain card writers everywhere as they address envelopes and write notes late into the evening after a long day at work. But whatever midnight oil is burned, they can have the satisfaction of knowing that in an electronic age, keeping in touch by paper and pen, sustaining friendships and contacts, is one of the worthiest holiday labors of love.

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