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From Quill to Click: The Surprising Evolution of Christmas Card Etiquette

hand written quill to computer click

Christmas cards have been a beloved holiday tradition for over a century and a half, with leading greeting-card maker Hallmark estimating that 1.3 billion Christmas cards are sent annually in the United States alone. However, sending Christmas cards was not always a staple of American social etiquette. Early American etiquette books, like Florence Hartley’s ‘The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness’ (1860), Walter Germain’s ‘The Complete Bachelor: Manners for Men’ (1896), and even Emily Post’s widely imitated ‘Etiquette’ (1922), make no mention of the proper customs for sending and receiving Christmas cards. 

The absence of Christmas card protocol in these guides reflects the evolving nature of social customs during the 19th century. Christmas cards first gained popularity in the Victorian era, with roots in the “Christmas pieces” of the early 1800s. These were sheets of writing paper adorned with sketches used by British schoolboys to showcase their academic progress and suggest gifts. The “pieces” evolved into the printed Christmas card in 1843 when Joseph Cundall, a London artist, issued the first one. Cundall custom lithographed just 1,000 copies of the holiday missive, which pictures a family gathered around a table enjoying glasses of wine, the same year that Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” Hand colored and with blank spaces for the recipient’s and sender’s names, the card bears the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” 

As the tradition of sending Christmas cards grew, so did the need for guidelines on how to properly engage in this custom. Christmas card rules of behavior by the early 20th century were a growing topic of discussion in newspapers across the United States.  

Early American etiquette books make no mention of the proper customs for sending and receiving Christmas cards. 
Early American etiquette books make no mention of the proper customs for sending and receiving Christmas cards. 

Syndicated columnists were just starting to weigh in on the subject, offering advice to readers on the proper way to address and send their holiday greetings. In 1916, Francis Marshall of the McClure Newspaper Syndicate asked, “Did it ever occur to you that there are about twenty persons of your acquaintance, persons with whom you have rubbed elbows in one way or another in the course of your little life journey, who would be perfectly delighted to receive a Christmas card from you?” She suggested readers send cards to often-overlooked individuals such as “great-aunt Mattie, who lives off on the old farm and almost never sees any pretties,” and “old Emma who does the wash.” 

Until the 1960s, most Delaware newspaper etiquette articles were written by local columnists or appeared unsigned on the editorial page. They covered a wide range of topics, from addressing envelopes properly to choosing the right type of card for different recipients. One of the most frequently discussed topics was the issue of mailing etiquette. More than one article over the years mentioned the faux pas of sending cards using the cheaper third-class mail rather than first-class mail. In 1935, The Morning News advised readers that “Envelopes must be addressed by hand in ink, never by typewriter. Greeting cards are personal and demand the personal touch.”  

Engraved cards? Or personally signed?
Engraved cards? Or personally signed?

Another topic of discussion was the correct form regarding the use of personally signed cards versus engraved cards with printed names. In 1927, Allene Sumner, writing for The Evening Journal, lamented the trend of sending engraved cards, stating, “What is this code which insists that our ‘best people’ must select one card, and send it out wholesale to perhaps a hundred friends as different as the Christmas cards themselves?” Sumner advocated for a more personalized approach, suggesting that readers take the time to select individual cards for each recipient. In 1939, The Morning News advised readers that “Either printed or engraved signatures are now accepted as equally good form for the personal cards. Whichever is used, the lettering style of the signature must match that of the card.” However, by 1956, attitudes had shifted, with The News Journal reporting that “those ‘who really care’ will revert to longhand. A ‘personalized’ card will be a badge of the low-brow, or what the English have been calling non-U (non-upper class).”   

New etiquette forms emerged during World War II, and sending Christmas cards began to involve military protocols as well. “When sending greeting cards to commissioned officers, the rank MUST be designated,” The Morning News advised readers in 1943. “However, when sending a Christmas card to non-coms or enlisted men, it is optional whether or not you use the rank.” The article went on to suggest that if a husband was not home on leave at the time of sending cards, the wife might add a note saying, “John’s wishes are included with mine, and we hope to see you when next he is home on furlough.” 

As Christmas card lists grew, senders found themselves wondering how to respond to someone who had sent them a card but was not on their mailing list. In 1961, Delmarva News counseled subscribers that “Christmas card etiquette allows you to drop a brief thank-you note to the sender as an acknowledgement.” Similarly, in 1959, The Morning News suggested that “If you receive a card from someone not on your list, don’t rush out and mail a card in return if it will arrive too late. Instead, send a New Year’s card or write a note thanking them for their greeting.” 

New etiquette forms emerged during World War II, and sending Christmas cards began to involve military protocols as well.
New etiquette forms emerged during World War II, and sending Christmas cards began to involve military protocols as well.

Over the years, etiquette advisers also weighed in on the appropriate ink colors to use when signing Christmas cards. In 1939, The Morning News declared “colored inks are popular this year, red and green preferred.” There was no turning back. “Colored ink is perfectly acceptable,” reiterated the Delmarva News in 1961. 

Manners coaches acknowledged the uphill battle involved in personalizing each and every card on a large list. “What fun it would be these calm days long before the Yuletide rush begins,” sighed News Journal columnist Allene Sumner in 1927, “to calmly sit down to a thousand Christmas cards and, with no jostling bargain-hunting harridans about, elect just the right Christmas card for just the right friend!” 

Despite the added effort, the trend towards sending “individual cards” in addition to “general cards” only grew. “Individual cards give wide scope for unique and original choice, as they are selected to fit each individual on the sender’s list and may accordingly be religious, dignified, humorous, or quaint, as desired,” pointed out the Morning News in 1936. 

Christmas card sending in the early 20th century was largely an upper-middle-class and above practice. Readers who wanted to engrave their cards were advised to use their calling card printing plate, a clear reflection of their social status. “If you are using your calling card plate to have cards engraved,” cautioned the Morning News in 1930, “be sure to select a card with a verse, which permits the name to come at the top, as— ‘Miss Sarah Brown extends best Christmas wishes,’ since a title such as Miss or Mrs. would not in strict correctness be used in a signature.” 

Christmas card sending in the early 20th century was largely an upper-middle-class and above practice.
Christmas card sending in the early 20th century was largely an upper-middle-class and above practice.

It is worth noting that the era’s etiquette articles addressed a female audience, specifically married women. Only tangentially did these write-ups offer tips for businesswomen, and rarely did they offer any help for single women or men. The social milieu of the time placed the responsibility for holiday card sending largely on married women’s shoulders. 

By 1953, the American Christmas card industry was a $230 million business. The period from the 1950s to the 1980s saw a broad rise in interest regarding Christmas card etiquette, reflected in national advice columns like Miss Manners, Dear Abby, and Amy Vanderbilt’s Modern Etiquette. The post-World War II economic boom led to greater disposable income and an expansion of the middle class, fostering an increased interest in social decorum. National advice columns provided a platform for the widespread dissemination of rapidly shifting social norms and expectations, including holiday traditions. These experts addressed thorny issues of card sending in divorce situations, mixed families from second marriages, cards to LGBT individuals, and other new social challenges to the traditional practice of a married couple sending cards to another married couple. 

With the advent of email in the late 20th century, a more relaxed and informal approach to communication emerged, leading to a decline in traditional Christmas card etiquette. Email provided a faster, more convenient method for sending holiday greetings, reducing reliance on traditional paper cards.  

Christmas card etiquette in the 21st century has continued to evolve to reflect changing social norms and family dynamics. In a 2019 article for The News Journal, Tracee M. Herbaugh explored some of these changes, noting that “Etiquette is based on historical precedent, but also follows cultural shifts, of which there have been many in recent decades.” Herbaugh advised readers to “know your recipients’ preferences. Are they married with separate or hyphenated names? Was a new, blended name created? Do their children have different surnames?” She also noted the emergence of a new courtesy title, Mx. (pronounced “Mix”), which has been embraced by some transgender, nonbinary or gender-neutral people as an alternative to Mr. or Ms. 

For many, the act of selecting, signing, and mailing cards remains a cherished ritual.
For many, the act of selecting, signing, and mailing cards remains a cherished ritual.

In an age of e-cards and social media, the Christmas card tradition faces new challenges. Yet for many, the act of selecting, signing, and mailing cards remains a cherished ritual. From its origins as a single printed card in Victorian England to its status as a billion-dollar industry, the Christmas card has undergone a remarkable evolution. Despite changing technologies and social mores, the core purpose remains the same: to connect with loved ones and spread holiday cheer. 

As we sift through the stack of envelopes each December, sorting the personal from the promotional, we participate in a ritual that stretches back generations. The evolution of Christmas card etiquette over the past century reflects enormous cultural changes in American society, yet the tradition remains resilient and relevant. Whether you’re sending a carefully selected religious scene, a whimsical pop culture reference, or a simple message of goodwill, you’re part of a rich tapestry of tradition. As you sign each card and seal each envelope, you’re not just participating in a holiday custom – you’re forging connections, strengthening ties, and spreading a little bit of joy in an often-chaotic world. 

References: 

Delmarva News. (1961, December 14). Christmas Card Etiquette. The News Journal, p. 19. 

Herbaugh, T. M. (2019, December 1). Christmas Card Etiquette for the Modern Era. The News Journal, p. B5. 

Marshall, F. (1916, December 20). Syndicated Column. The Morning News, p. 14. 

Sellers, F. S. (1999, December). The Significance of Business-Themed Christmas Cards. The News Journal. 

Sumner, A. (1927, October 19). The Woman’s Day. The Evening Journal, p. 19. 

The Morning News. (1930, December 11). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 6. 

The Morning News. (1935, November 22). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 19. 

The Morning News. (1936, December 7). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 16. 

The Morning News. (1939, December 11). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 18. 

The Morning News. (1943, December 21). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 15. 

The Morning News. (1959, December 15). Christmas Card Etiquette. The Morning News, p. 23. 

The News Journal. (1956, November 10). What Others Say. The News Journal, p. 14. 

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