Burning Question

Is the Christmas card dead?

Author Nina Burleigh says the holiday photo is dead — and the internet killed it

Every year around the holidays, countless Americans sit down at their dining room tables to thoughtfully scribble pen-and-paper updates about how they are and what they've been doing with their lives to a select number of friends. These messages are usually written on the back of a recent family photograph (sometimes with Santa hats), before they're sealed, stamped, and mailed around the country, where they're displayed like a trophy over someone else's fireplace.

Could that all be changing? This year, especially, there seems to be a dearth of dead-tree holiday cheer filling up mailboxes across the country. In a recent column for TIME, author Nina Burleigh says the spirit once distilled inside the Christmas card is dying, and a familiar, if fairly obvious perpetrator killed it: The internet. "There's little point to writing a Christmas update now, with boasts about grades and athletic prowess, hospitalizations and holidays, and the dog's mishaps, when we have already posted these events and so much more of our minutiae all year long," she writes. "The urge to share has already been well sated."

[Now] we already have real-time windows into the lives of people thousands of miles away. We already know exactly how they've fared in the past year, much more than could possibly be conveyed by any single Christmas card. If a child or grandchild has been born to a former colleague or high school chum living across the continent, not only did I see it within hours on Shutterfly or Instagram or Facebook, I might have seen him or her take his or her first steps on YouTube. If a job was gotten or lost, a marriage made or ended, we have already witnessed the woe and joy of it on Facebook, email and Twitter.

Burleigh says the demise of the Christmas card is deeply saddening. "It portends the end of the U.S. Postal Service," she writes. "It signals the day is near when writing on paper is non-existent." It's true, says Tony Seifart at Memeburn — "my mantel is empty this year. In fact I haven't received one Christmas card yet."

Let's not get too nostalgic just yet, says Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic. Research firm IBISWorld anticipates that purchases of cards and postage will be the highest it has been in five years — $3.17 billion total. And Hallmark, the industry's biggest player, has seen revenue hold steady since the early 2000s despite the financial crisis. We could also think about this another way: That desire to share, the willingness to inform, could just be extending itself beyond the physical form of the holiday photo. 

No matter what time of the year, people now write contemplative letters with weird formatting to an ill-defined audience of "friends"; these are Christmas letters, whether Santa is coming down the chimney or not. There are reindeer horns on pugs in July. And humblebrags about promotions in April. There are dating updates in November. And you can disclose that you were voted mother of the year any damn day you please... For good or for ill, perhaps we're seeing not the death of the holiday card and letter, but its rebirth as a rhetorical mode. Confessional, self-promotional, hokey, charming, earnest, technically honest, introspective, hopey-changey: Oh, Christmas Card, you have gone open-source and conquered us all. 

The spirit of the Christmas card is indeed alive and well. It's just not necessarily in a Christmas card.

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