Christmas Cards, Ties That Bind and the American Way

By Jamie Stiehm

December 20, 2013 5 min read

WASHINGTON — So I mailed ten Christmas cards, handwritten, from the handsome old Georgetown post office and felt good will to all. Yet, I wondered if such things are just as dated as the building.

Musing on Christmas cards as mirrors to the soul, I had to face the truth. I was sending and receiving fewer cards this season. Is it only me? Why were most of the cards from my favorite people 65 and over?

Three came from women — in New York, Baltimore and Brentwood — who acted like second mothers to me, one since I was born and my parents and I lived in Harlem in their Columbia days. Comfort and joy was enclosed in those.

The custom of Christmas cards dates to 1843. A distinguished London gentleman who lived in Hampstead, Henry Cole, hit upon the idea of an artist's images on cards sold to the public. There's a plaque on his Victorian house on Elm Row to show for it. As it happens, my English ex-husband grew up on that same road in the scenic outpost of Northwest London. Yes, Christmas cards bind us still. Our families exchange transatlantic cards.

Oh, Henry, we Americans have taken your religious feasts and charity art and made a few changes. Hope you don't mind, but many like to create a personal narrative for friends and folks close and far. Isn't it all about us?

Photos of shiny happy people are a must. Most let the pictures tell the story in the age of the "selfie." Some families climbed Machu Picchu and others went to all the winning college lacrosse games or horse shows. The children are lovable maniacs. Nothing ever went wrong this year. They have great lives and we are happy for them. These cards are seldom signed, but come on — that's so 20th century.

I took a last look at each address as I dropped the cards in the stamped letters box, bright with zinnia stamps. Sure enough, the mirror was clear that my life's geography had shifted eastward, mostly to the Mid-Atlantic, since growing up in California. Directions ranged from Alexandria, Va., where my editor lives, up north to Skowhegan, Maine, to the Margaret Chase Smith Library.

The Maine card to the library collections specialist was sent to someone I had not met personally, a kind woman who helped me understand Senator Smith as a trailblazer and giver of one of the greatest speeches in Senate history. The "Declaration of Conscience" is a real stem-winder. She had worked for the senator as her secretary. We struck up a camaraderie over years and I felt grateful to her. Who says New Englanders are cold?

Washington and Baltimore — these are the cities I've called home the last two decades. Half spent in one, half in the other. Incoming and outgoing cards tell a tale of two cities, which might as well be different planets.

Baltimore is a city of people who stay a while for generations. Once you make a friend there, you can be sure the addresses won't change often. My Millennial book club there marks its 14th birthday in 2014. The Christmas card traffic, so far, mostly involves Baltimore, where chestnuts, open fires and old-fashioned family Christmas Eve parties are likely to meet. Washington friends are more in the moment and on the move. You're more likely to get an emailed Christmas card here, because it's much more energy-efficient. Dare I say bah humbug?

A few written words are precious. Christmas cards are a fragile thread that ties us to what wise Rep. John Lewis calls the "beloved community." The thread seems ever more fragile, judging by my mail.

The 19th-century English custom has come a long way. To give us Americans some credit, I received a holiday card from a California friend my age, now a New Yorker, that was pure zeitgeist artwork. An exuberant collage that travelled in time with a musical motif: "not your ordinary family ... close as close can be."

Henry would be shocked and rocked.

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