Nostalgia for Fading Christmas Cards

December 24, 2015

Changing Christmas Scenario in Mangala
The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Alfred Tennyson, English poet laureate (1809-1892) in Passing of Arthur.

Things are changing in the way we celebrate our festivals. Over the years, in the name of controlling noise pollution and safety from injury, fire-crackers have been nearly eliminated as part of Diwali celebrations by official fiats and awareness drives. As we approach another Christmas some traditional practices have taken a back-seat. There was a time when every household made Christmas goodies and exchanged them with neibhours, friends and relatives. Now, these are bought from bakeries and sweet-meat shops and exchanges take a back-seat. Christmas visit was an annual ritual at a time when telephones were exclusive and mobiles non-existent. Going out to visit is to run the risk of getting stuck in traffic jams. Since visits and drinking often go together there is also a risk of getting caught for drunken driving.

But, the most striking change concerns the gradual elimination of traditional printed greeting cards, especially Christmas cards. This subject is articulated by two contributors. While John Monteiro is no stranger to Daijiworld readers, Joan Lobo is coming aboard Daijiworld for the first time. A sensitive writer, she has been, for many years, reporting and writing for Mangalore, the monthly organ of Catholic Association of South Kanara which has record of unbroken publishing since its launch in 1927. The combo offering of the duo starts with her article.


Nostalgia for Fading Christmas Cards

By Joan Lobo

The 1st of December has always been my favourite day in the year because it marks the beginning of the joyous Christmas season. The Christmas spirit fills the air, with the shops playing Xmas carols and elaborately decorated. As I was strolling down the streets this year, I was excited to see the stars of all hues and shapes adorning the shop fronts and windows and was drawn in, with a festive excitement enveloping me. It was the special time of the year to pick up Xmas cards to send dear family members and friends. I was a bit rattled, however, to see a limited array of cards. From my disappointed expression, the sales girl blurted that it’s a sad story now that people don’t fancy sending cards anymore. And instantly I was transported myself into the nostalgic old days when our Xmas card list was extensive, the unstinted effort we made to make the lists for India and abroad and how we spent precious time selecting each card with the person in mind. The message inside the card had to be as beautiful and relevant to the receiver. Using the whole dining table for this ritual, cards spread across, the much used address book, the smoothest pen, the stamps and glue all neatly laid out was a sight to behold. When we mailed these cards it would be with the hope that each recipient would share the same pleasure that we got out of writing them – the same joy that we got when their cards arrived as well and which were all given pride of place.

Sending cards was always a cherished tradition, an age-old form of communicating our goodwill at Christmas. Could that all be changing now? Of late there seems to be a dearth of holiday cheer filling up mailboxes across. Even the postman’s bag has shrunk and he doesn't look weighed down with the loads of Xmas cards like he used to be years ago. The spirit that filled every Christmas card has been progressively dying, and a familiar, if fairly obvious perpetrator had murdered it: the new intruder is Internet. The number of Christmas cards we receive in the mail have severely dwindled. It is a common phenomenon all over the world. We are sending less of the traditional Christmas messages, choosing to either create our own cards online or send e-cards. Our easy-going and quick-fix generation prefers to do everything instantly and technology supports this by emails, SMSs and telephone/mobile connectivity. There is no greater pleasure than to hand-write a Xmas wish to our loved ones and also receive wishes by cards, which can be preserved and appreciated throughout the year. If people could continue sending Xmas cards to their close friends and loved ones, the tradition could be kept alive for many more years to come. Wishful thinking? The near-demise of the Christmas card is deeply saddening.

It is untrue that “nobody sends Christmas cards anymore,” as non-senders proclaim with an air of self-evident finality. But, certainly, few continue to do. I know this from personal experience and sadly I can reiterate that over the years the Xmas cards I receive now are close to nothing from the piles of cards received earlier. However, now I get innumerable Christmas wishes by email and a few dozen SMSs on my mobile. There are many things to celebrate about the rise of social media, and many to regret. Among the most regrettable is that the Internet has rapidly eroded one of the season’s most charming traditions. There is no real pattern. Some business firms, to please and retain their clients, still send cards, often accompanied by tiny calendars. On the other hand, a surprising number of close friends, even immediate family members, shoot out a few words on Twitter or Facebook and enjoy being acknowledged as tech savvy. I know there are people who have given up on Christmas cards, finding them a chore, or preferring to save the cost of purchase and postage and avoid writer’s cramps in favour of sending an e-mail greeting.

Is the Christmas card really going obsolete or becoming out of style? If relationships weren’t hard work, they would not be relationships at all. In the midst of all the rush of Christmas rituals, it would be no wonder that the quiet time spent writing Christmas cards could be a welcome and peaceful respite for many. Whether fashionable or not, then, maybe this treasured custom of the Christmas season would long survive. Xmas cards are undoubtedly a joy to get in the mail with updates from near and dear ones. And displaying them around your apartment or house adds a cheery sense of warmth. There is something about the effort involved that reminds us that we are on someone’s list. That they remembered us at Christmas time in the midst of their busy schedules and counted us as a blessing in their lives was gratifying.

Communication has seen a major overhaul in the past couple decades and I for one wouldn’t want our current technology to disappear, and neither would I like ‘the old ways’ to be discarded. Like print books and eBooks, I think there is justification for both to complement each other – each can meet a personal need. With online communication dominating many people's lives, letter writing is also increasingly a dying art. But while it is old fashioned, Christmas card-writing is a strong part of the festive tradition - and the one part of letter-writing that looks to be living on. After all, isn't it tradition that Christmas is all about?

You can blame all sorts of factors for the tragic demise of the Christmas card: lack of time, hideous expense, the eco-sin for cutting down trees for greetings and ignorance of changing addresses. But it seems to me the true reason is more rejecting the old and embracing the new in totality. That’s probably why on top of my priority list this Xmas season is 'SEND CHRISTMAS CARDS'. Because I not only want to receive and send Christmas cards, but also be a part of the meaning of Christmas in a world too rushed, too fleeting, too ephemeral.

Requiem for Greeting Cards Recycling?

By John B Monteiro

Now that the Diwali season is over and Christmas-New Year is ahead, it is time to think about greeting cards. We buy with care to express our feelings for the receivers. Consistent with our budget, we go in for expensive-looking and expressive cards. Beyond buying on personal accounts, those who hold senior positions in the corporate world get greeting cards on company account to send to business contacts and, by unofficial extension, to personal friends and relatives. There is near reciprocity in the greeting cards system whereby a sender also receives about the same number of cards. Once the card is received, a mental note of the sender is made, the card is set aside. In Christian homes, such cards are hung on a string in the drawing room where the Christmas crib and tree are installed, and are displayed for the duration of the Christmas-New Year season. They exude the Christmas spirit of joy and sharing.

What happens then? These cards become a storage problem in houses and flats where spare space is scarce. You cannot destroy them or consign them to the wastepaper basket because most cards, besides having sentimental connection to the sender, have religious themes – pictures of saints and deities. We can’t consign them to the garbage bin. What is the way out? This is the time we should think of the downtrodden, especially small children, who have no means of sending or receiving greeting cards. Urchins and children from the slums have no opportunity of holding colourful greeting cards in their hands and experiencing their rich visuals.

We can step in with our used greeting cards and bring some cheer to the deprived children. There are three distinct routes. Many organisations working for the welfare of children, vulnerable groups and other good causes raise funds by selling greeting cards. These include Helpage, UNICEF, CRY, World Wildlife Fund and Bombay Natural History Society. When we buy cards from them, rather than from purely commercial sources, we help their beneficiaries.

Now we come to the used cards. On a personal level, one can collect their used cards and distribute them among slum children or through neighbouring balwadis. Better still is to be an instrument of collection and handing over the stock to organisations which have arrangements for streamlined distribution among the deserving.

The third route is renovation and recycling. Normally a greeting card comprises an expensively printed outer jacket and an inner paper insert carrying specific message where space is provided for the sender to write the name of recipient and also note the name of the sender with date. All this comes on a flimsy paper which is bonded to the inner spine of the expensive jacket. Once this insert is written on, the card is redundant.

There are organisations, involved in charitable work, which collected these used cards, discard the inner insert and attached a fresh insert for resale. For the buyer these come cheaper than the brand new cards. Since the renovation is done with great care and expertise, the recipient would be no wiser about its paternity or vintage. Besides, it means conservation of scarce resources and environmental preservation as cards involve wood pulp and consequent deforestation.

Someone has to take the initiative for any good cause. A box with a suitable slit for inserting used cards can be kept near the ground floor lift landing of large apartment buildings and office complexes. One has to take the risk. If, for instance, one went around seeking permission to collect cards in office premises he will be driven from pillar to post – because passing the buck is the office culture. But, experience shows that if we empower ourselves, no authority will come in the way of doing good work because they would argue among themselves as to who is in charge for permissions. So, the test is to go ahead till you are stopped – which is unlikely.

In Mangalore there are organisations running orphanages and old age homes which would be happy to recycle used cards and raise funds. Those who volunteer to get involved in this goodwill exchange would have the satisfaction of bringing a spot of sunlight into the bleak lives of our downtrodden brethren.

Now there is a fly in the ointment. The greeting card scene is changing rapidly. Today, the net, mobiles and Skype are progressively eclipsing the traditional greeting cards, the greeting card printing industry and selling outlets. Greetings have taken the SMS, mobile and email routes. Not just the wordings; the whole gamut of visuals and images are waiting to be downloaded free and transmitted online at the fraction of the cost of postage and with the click of a computer mouse. Also, the mobile and Skype add another dimension with voice and visual interaction between two persons – overheard and overseen by others at both ends.

Christmas cards provided seasonal income to printers and distributors. For the printers of such cards, to make up for the dwindling cards, a new avenue of income is the personalised cards for weddings and other family celebrations like christening and First Holy Communion. The wedding cards are increasingly getting sophisticated and luxurious even in their packaging. There was a time when prospective guests were personally invited by the host, especially in rural areas. Now they rush to printers or suppliers who specialise in such cards. The traditional greetings card retailer or distributor is practically eliminated from this loop.

Should we mourn the eclipse of traditional Christmas cards? I think there is a silver lining here. Christmas cards meant use of high-grade paper which, in turn, meant cutting of trees for pulp. So, the net, mobiles and Skypes are promoting the cause of environmental protection. It also means lesser burden for the postal system and the delivery man – though it also means lesser excuse for the postman to angle for seasonal tips.


By Joan Lobo & John Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • Dr.Anand & Geeta Pereira, Sakleshpur/Mangalore

    Wed, Dec 30 2015

    Thank you Joan and John. You have helped us relive memories of yester years.Appreciate your time in composing such fine articles and helping readers of Daijiworld across the globe, access these articles with the click of the mouse.

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Fri, Dec 25 2015

    An interesting article by the authors. Thank you.

    Christmas, so far as I can remember, was an affair for the neighbours rather than for the relatives. The annual day for the relatives to arrive (usually without waiting for an invitation) was the parish feast.

    Christmas for the community was not about cards, but about Kuswar. It was distributed among the neighbours.

    I don't think the Christmas cards made much of an impact among the Mangalorean Catholics (or for that matter among the Indian Christians).

    And very quickly we moved into electronic communication.

  • Dr Mohan Prabhu, QC, mangalore/ottawa

    Thu, Dec 24 2015

    Very interesting contributions from Joan and John, especially Joan's article brings back memories of yore when we used to exchange "kusvar". Christmas cards are a more recent development with relatives living off in far off lands. Mailing expenses (e.g. a simple card mailed overseas cost $2.60 (Canadian) [I think this translates to more than hundred rupees) a card) and this has put a damper on sending more than a handful of cards. The post office is to blame for this steep rise in mailing costs and the government is wailing about postal deficits. Compared to that, a telephone call made overseas costs less than a quarter of that amount, and one can speak and hear the voices of the near and dear ones. E-mail greetings are in vogue and quickly d they are useful for "mass mailing" to friends and others on the address list and they are often reciprocated by a simple "thank you"! And they cost nothing!
    John gives excellent ideas for recycling old Christmas cards, dwindling though they may be and in the future the numbers sending those recycled or brand new cards will be dwindling further and further. I myself bought packets of those cards during my visits to India, and this tradition should continue even though the income generated from those cards will diminish over time.
    Congratulations to you both on your contributions.

  • ANP, Blur

    Thu, Dec 24 2015

    Not the spirit of Christmas ...but spirit of Revenue triggered the idea of ?Christmas cards
    The custom of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was a civil servant (Government worker) who had helped set-up the new 'Public Record Office' (now called the Post Office), where he was an Assistant Keeper, and wondered how it could be used more by ordinary people.

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