I love traditions.
As I grow older I find myself reconnecting with the traditions of my youth. Traditions are my way of holding the chasm of age at bay. Hell, I might even go trick-or-treating next Halloween.
This year I decided to go all-out with Christmas cards. I'd been cutting back the past decade. Only people who sent me a card received one.
Truth be told Christmas cards were a pain. You had to keep track of your recipients' surface address. You had to buy cards, which was expensive, even if you opted for the rotgut Walmart cards at $3 per box. Postage was outrageous. Worse, the time it took to personally write, address and stamp Christmas cards was inconceivable.
This year, however, I set aside those concerns. Everyone I knew would receive a Christmas card. I would start early, in September, and do only two or three per day. By December I'd have a stack as high as my Santa-like, jiggling beer belly.
I found a cheaper source of holiday cards - a local thrift shop. People were actually giving their unused Christmas cards to an organization that rescued dogs. I could buy a box for $1 and I did - several, as a matter of fact.
My stack grew tall and tottered. On Thanksgiving Day I launched my first fusillade, about 35 cards. The days that followed saw more cards enter the U.S. Postal Service mail stream. I distributed cards at the office in a Saturday assault. In each card I included a holiday "newsletter," actually a humorous rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas" rewritten for the politcally correct, printed on cheery, holiday- themed stationary.
I have another holiday tradition. The cards I receive get taped onto the refrigerator. In years past they'd fill the fridge on the front and two sides. Then I'd branch out to the kitchen cabinets. Because I had cats I couldn't put up a Christmas tree - they'd tear it to smithereens - so my kitchen became the cheeriest room in the holiday house.
I must have sent over 100 Christmas cards this year. Today, I noticed something peculiar.
I've not received many cards in return.
It used to be that folks who received a card from me returned the favor, whether they wanted to or not, I guess out of fear of violating some unspoken etiquette. Or because they simply wanted to.
But not this year. The card crop has been slim pickings.
Then I read a post on Slate about the dearth of holiday card-mailing. The author suggested Facebook was responsible for the decline in Christmas cards.
I've been thinking about that.
The author said because Facebook members can keep up with the activities of their friends they no longer need to send cards. But that suggests the purpose of a Christmas card is to update your friends on your "status." That isn't the purpose of a Christmas card. A Christmas card is an artifact meant to enhance a relationship. It tells the recipient somebody cared enough about you to set aside 5 minutes of his time to write a note, put it in an envelope, address the envelope and affix a forever stamp.
Christmas cards have been declining since the advent of e-mail. How easier it was to send a note to your friends wishing them a merry Christmas. How cheaper. And then the web discovered graphical Christmas e-cards, some with giff animations, that sparkled in your in-box. And was it not easier, cheaper and quicker to check all the names on your contact list and mass-mail a holiday greeting?
I don't think Facebook killed the Christmas card. I think the web committed that crime, and it's doing something far more insidious: It's killing tradition.
Sure, some traditions should die. The washing machine did away with the need to beat our clothes against rocks or scrub them against washboards. Thank God that's no longer necessary. Good riddance.
But some traditions deserve to live for no other reason than they represent an authentic human connection, not the faceless, soul-less interaction that passes for interpersonal communication in the online world. I think Christmas cards fit that description. The holiday season is the one time of the year when we are asked to engage ourselves in honest emotion, to thoughtfully indulge in the qualities and nuances of that which makes us human beings. Robo-posting greetings hardly suffices.
With luck my refrigerator will be covered by flapping, tape-falling-off cards that shed glitter on the floor. On Jan. 2, 2011 I will remove them, look at the notes one more time, then donate them to a nursing home where the inhabitants will use them in some craft-worthy purpose.
Next year I will bombard my friends with cards - I overbought this year.
I hope they can read my writing.