Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Holiday Card Ritual

Another year done, another holiday season over. And while I clean up in the wake of the holiday season come and gone, I am left pondering a stack of holiday cards we have received over the last month. Most are from family, many are from friends, a several are from colleagues. While I look through these cards, I am reminded of the insecurity that many people face during the holiday season. We could discuss the obvious gift giving conundrums people wrestle with every year, but I find the holiday card phenomenon to hold deeper insight into our insecurities.

People send holiday cards all the time. It might cost you a dollar and change if you count postage. Yet this simple ritual has the ability to decide your social status and seat at the table of life. For those of you who do send holiday cards, you'll recognize this as a small variation of your routine. For those of you who do not send holiday cards, let me take you through the process step by step. First, you pull out your stack of holiday cards, either purchased recently or from last year's post holiday sales. Second, you pull out your address book, which you hope still contains updated addresses. Now here comes the hard part for many people. To whom do you send a card? You only have so many cards, and frankly, you're not spending a hundred plus dollars on postage--how many times has the post office raised the price of a first class stamp? Does Aunt Helen get a card? What about Jim, your college buddy whom you last saw at homecoming last year? And how about your boss Mark, do you send him one?

The greeting card ritual forces us to evaluate our social circles. Chances are that if you don't talk to someone or run into them at least twice that year, you probably aren't sending them a card. But that doesn't really narrow the list of names in your address book. After all, that Wii you bought your son isn't going to get paid for in stamps. So we narrow the list further. We apply new rules and eliminate potential recipients like freshmen at basketball tryouts. Aunt Helen didn't come to our wedding this year, Jim's not married and won't care if he gets a card, and Mark, well, you have to send the boss a card. Pretty soon you're down to about fifty lucky recipients of your holiday card. You write a one or two line blurb in the card, or insert a year-in-review letter if you're one of those people. You address the envelopes, put on a nice seasonal stamp, and you're done.

Or are you? Now the question of when to mail them arises. There are no rules of etiquette for holiday cards. At least none that are common knowledge. Perhaps the only hard and fast rule is that your holiday card should arrive before the date of the occasion. This means that it arrives before December 25th if Christmas, before the first night of Chanukah, before December 26th (or really December 25th since there is no mail delivery on December 25th) if Kwanzaa, and so forth. This is unlike wedding invitations, where it is painfully obvious if you're on the B-list or even C-list of invitees, because there is in fact etiquette for the timing of the mailing of the invitations. Ever get a wedding invitation a month before the wedding? Was it really because there was inadequate postage or it was lost in the mail and so another had to be sent out? Holiday cards are different. They are much subtler in how they indicate your relative social status.

If you ask people who send holiday cards if they have ever recevied a card from someone to whom they did not send a card, everyone will say yes. But if then ask those very same people how many of them will then send a card to that very person whom they forgot, I'll bet the vast majority have done so for at least one unmatched card. Why do we do this? Did we not already pass by that name in the address book and strike it from the holiday card list? Did we not already deem them unworthy of a holiday card from us? Or worse, unworthy to spend our dollar and change on? Is it guilt? Is it fear of being judged? Is it simple etiquette? What happened to giving for the sake of giving? What happened to the holiday spirit?

I believe there are several reasons why we try to "match" holiday cards. The very first reason is that we think we can get away with it. If you go simply by the numbers, the average person probably receives at least thirty or more holiday cards each year. Now unless you're an envelope saver, you probably won't pay much attention to or remember to great accuracy when you received each of those cards. And since there's no strict etiquette on the timing of holiday cards so long as they arrive before the holiday, you really cannot say whether you received a B-list card or if the sender simply sent them out later. Also, you're likely not going to be discussing when you got each holiday card with everyone you know, so you are quite unlikely to be in that awkward situation of discovering your B-list status. "Did you see Alison's card this year? A two page year-in-review letter! I don't care what her cleaning lady is going to night school for!" "Oh yeah, Bill and I had a laugh when we opened that up two weeks ago." (Wait a second, I sent her a card last week and I just got that card yesterday...) So if you're unlikely to figure it out, your B-list addressees probably won't figure it out.

The second reason is that we like getting holiday cards because we like getting mail that isn't addressed to "Resident" or comes with a bulk mailing stamp. And we feel somewhat slighted when we don't get a matched holiday card. People who do not return a matched holiday card are less likely to get a holiday the next year. And we want to make sure we get a card next year, too.

The third and perhaps most important reason is that we feel guilty over a small folded piece of paper with nice pictures on it and trite optimistic wish printed on the inside flap. This is not startling new information. We have been conditioned long ago that equality in gift giving is important. Take for example, Luke 21:1. "As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said ,"this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." In exchange for the eternal salvation and the life of Jesus the wealthy gave maybe one percent of their worth, but the widow gave everything she had. Now we could debate about the nuances and verbiage of the passage, but I think the main point of the passage remains the same--there should be equality in gifts. Even among our relationships we need equality, and it is most easily measured with material things. If Sam gets me a forty dollar Target gift card, he will get a forty dollar Best Buy gift card from me. This works well for our close relationships, but why does it matter for our less than close relationships? Why does it matter that Mary in accounting get a card from me if I get a card from her? Or vice versa?

Why this is so important to most people? Perhaps it is because we simply do not want to be a bad friend. Perhaps it is because we feel as though it is a favor or one-up that will loom over our heads. Or perhaps it is because we like to think we will still have that network point to call on in the future if we ever need it. Suffice to say, it is unlikely to be the holiday spirit that moves us send out the follow up card. This is all further accentuated when you look at how often the follow up holiday card goes out. I would guess that of all the holiday cards people receive, ten percent are from businesses thanking them for their business and reminding people they will be there in the new year to offer the same services. Another eighty five percent or so are from people who are already on your holiday card list. That means that less than five percent of the holiday cards people receive are unmatched. That's maybe two to four cards. And usually they are from people hardly talk to on a regular basis. But when we get those cards, we often pull out another card, address it, write some generic holiday wish inside, stamps it, and send it off. I did it this year, and I'll do it again next year.

I am a good friend.