Where have all the Christmas cards gone?

Noel Christmas cardI admit it. This holiday season, I skipped sending out holiday greeting cards. I told myself it was because I was too busy -- but I'm not sure that's the real reason. Granted, I was busy this year, but was I busier than years past? Or, was this the first step toward turning my back on a ritual long-steeped in history? And a few warm and fuzzies, too.

The first signs of Americans mailing cards to each other came around 1845, but those cards were imported from Europe. They also cost about 5 cents to mail if the recipient lived within 300 miles. In 1875, Louis Prang, a German immigrant, published the first line of U.S. Christmas cards and we've never looked back. Today we send family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers cards adorned with pictures of Santa, our kids and pets, and our kids and pets dressed like Santa. Or at least we were doing that before the bottom fell out of the economy.

Over the years, there's no denying Christmas cards have grown from their very early 1800s origins as letters sent from school children to their families at the holidays to the mass-marketed revenue-generator that they are today. This undoubtedly pleases the U.S. Postal Service, since Christmas cards net them big bucks. The average household in America sends out 28 Christmas cards requiring at least one $.44 stamp apiece. That's a $12.32 "holiday bonus" per household for the post office.

Then there's the cost of the cards themselves. An average box (no foil-lined envelopes or pre-printed, personalized signature) can run around $6 for 25. Even less if you shop at a dollar store. We usually send out 100 or so cards, so in our household skipping this year saved us a little under $70 (including postage and tax). Granted it's not chump change, but certainly not going to make or break a budget, either.

So saving a buck or two might not be the true underlying cause fewer than normal cards showed up in mailboxes across the country this year.

A techno Christmas
Pinging e-mails, buzzing smart phones and even XBox Live, some say, are players in the reduction of holly-jolly greetings being sent via snail mail. "I can dress my avatar in a Santa suit and wish my friends Merry Christmas while we're playing Modern Warfare," says 23 year-old gamer Zack Sage of Chicago.

Those hoping for a bit less violent greetings took to their keyboards. "I sent out e-cards this year," says Jack Shelton, a working dad and husband in Montgomery, AL. "There was just no time to write the addresses by hand, or even run them through software. It was so much faster and easier to check off a bunch of email addresses." Not to mention the benefit of not waiting in an endless line just to purchase a few of the 2.11 billion holiday stamps the post office printed this year.

Shelton's time-saving theory is shared by corporate America, too.

"I was willing to write and mail paper cards, but our board thought that was too much work, so someone suggested e-cards and I went along even though I thought it was less than ideal. However, the cards were very positively accepted so I happily changed my mind about them," says Alexandra Owens, director of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. "Both I and the organization deeply appreciate the effort and contributions made by members throughout the year and want to send our thanks and good wishes to them. E-cards are easier in every possible way, saving paper, time, labor, and money, they're the perfect solution."

But no matter how time- or cost-effective, diehards say e-cards, FaceBook "shout outs," tweets and XBox avatars just can't take the place of ripping open an envelope. And so lovers of holiday tradition and lore are slow to warm to techno greetings. In his Christmas column, journalist Stuart Leavenworth poetically exclaimed receiving an electronic Christmas card is as "satisfying as receiving an electronic Christmas cookie." At least e-cookies won't make you fat.

"I did get a number of e-holiday letters but you can't print them out. And it isn't the same as getting something besides bills and refinance offers in the mailbox," says fellow WalletPopper Ann Brenhoff.

The psychology of cards
Some say the overall state of the country is to blame for fewer cards being exchanged. "You can't turn on the news without hearing something depressing," says Marina Pearson of Los Angeles. "It's hard to be cheery and "in the spirit" with so much gloom and doom."

The fate of cards
Although the post office won't know for sure how many cards were in fact sent this year until the final numbers are in, they went into the season expecting to deliver fewer Christmas cards. Overall, the post office projected to deliver 16.6 billion cards, letters and packages between Thanksgiving and Christmas. "This is down from 19 billion cards, letters and packages in 2008," says Michael Woods, a member of the public relations department for the USPS.

The post office says cards in general are down, too. "In terms of cards, there was about an 11% decrease in the number of First-Class Mail cancellations for the first two weeks of December compared to same period last year, which is a pretty good indicator for the number of cards being mailed," says Woods.

It seems those who did send holiday greetings via snail mail did so from the comfort of their own home. Woods says 41 million customers skipped the trip to their local post office for stamps and opted to ship online.

There is a bright spot. While total holiday mail volume is down this year, Woods says the post office did see growth in packages being shipped, particularly Flat Rate Boxes. Guess those ads on TV saying "if it fits, it ships for one low price to any state in the country" worked. "We've seen double-digit growth in the number of Priority Mail Flat Rate Boxes shipped this holiday season," he says.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance journalist specializing in health, celebrity and consumer issues.
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