During the holiday season, I used to love going to the mailbox. As my family moved from Lafayette to Omaha to Fort Wayne to Colorado Springs to Hartford to Tucson to Zionsville, the Christmas cards followed my parents from job to job, neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city.
When I established my own household and added twin sons, the practice was much the same.
Sometimes, the holiday cards carried simple Hallmark sentiments and a signature. More often, there was a brief handwritten note.
Sometimes, there were Kodak moments of families or couples, kids or grandkids, nieces or nephews. Other times, there were long typewritten letters.
As much as any religious or spiritual sentiment, the common denominator of these season’s greetings was a desire to keep in touch—a once-a-year message that said, “We’re still here,” or, “Thinking of you,” or “We miss seeing you,” or “Let’s get together soon.”
Often, the holiday cards brought news—of births and deaths, promotions and layoffs, successes and struggles.
Viewing the pictures over the years, one could watch once-cute kids transition through geeky adolescence, then emerge as adults.
Reading the annual letters, one could follow journeys near and far, literal and emotional, tragic and triumphant.
My favorite holiday cards were from people I knew—aunts and uncles, cousins I’d not seen for a while, old neighbors from places past.
For many years, some of my elementary school teachers sent cards with news of students my parents or I had known. My elementary school principal sent cards, notes and news clippings well into her 90s.
Cards from people I didn’t know served as conversation starters—a chance to ask my parents who these people were, how they’d met, what their connection was to my dad’s business or to our family.
Nowadays, I still go to the mailbox. But the flow of holiday greeting cards has slowed to a trickle.
Many of those that arrive aren’t from friends and family at all. They’re from people my wife and I do business with during the year—bankers and brokers, grocers and dry cleaners, hardware stores and newspaper carriers.
Mostly, however, our mailbox is full of sales pitches: catalogs from merchants wanting us to buy things. Coupons from retailers wanting us to buy things for less. Postcards from businesses here in Indianapolis or somewhere in cyberspace wanting us to buy things on sale “for three days only” or “this weekend only” or “until midnight Saturday.”
Then, there are sales pitches from good causes seeking year-end donations. These arrive by the dozens—from arts groups and education groups, disease groups and human service groups, animal protection groups and civic groups, historic groups and save-the-planet groups, urban groups and nature groups, protect-our-rights groups and protect-our-children groups, faith groups and secular groups, conservative groups and liberal groups.
They all want our money.
They all need our money.
They all promise year-end tax breaks and—oh, by the way—the good feeling of giving to others during this season of sharing.
Between the sales pitches and the charity pitches, our mailbox says: “Spend money,” and, “Give money away.”
Aside from advertising copy, it rarely says, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings” or “Joyous Noel.”
Judging strictly by the mailbox, Linus might say of spending money, “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
But this isn’t strictly a regret-filled nostalgia column. For romantic as it may be, that old-fashioned reliance on once-a-year exchanges of letters, photos and greeting cards has been surpassed by the instantaneous, ubiquitous and inexpensive world of social media.
Thanks to minute-by-minute Facebook and Twitter reports on what my friends’ and relatives’ children are doing, eating, playing, reading, suffering and achieving, I need no longer wait for an annual recap.
Thanks to photo and video sharing via Instagram, FlickR, YouTube, et al., I no longer need to imagine what my friends and their children look like. I can see and hear them. In motion. In stills. In flash mobs. In sports apparel. In the school play. In Gangnam Style.
Thanks to instant messaging, text and Skype, I need no longer trek to the mailbox at all—in December or any other time. I can hop online and talk to Andy in Illinois, Gene in South Bend, Steve in Kuwait, Angie in Cairo, Sara in London, Tom in Connecticut, Jean in Florida, Dawn in Fort Wayne, Zach in Brooklyn, Austin in Virginia, or Mary Ann around the corner.
With all that at our fingertips, it’s no wonder the neighborhood card shop went out of business.
No wonder the U.S. Postal Service is struggling.
No wonder school systems are dropping handwriting from the curriculum.
No wonder I lament the loss of old-fashioned season’s greetings, but cherish the alternative of all-season greetings, connections and interaction.
Is Santa Claus online?•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.