Sometimes I think being a scholar of culture boils down to constantly recognizing that, actually, it absolutely is that deep. Pretty much all the time.
We were talking about seasonal cultural practices that we found interesting. Mav brought up sending Christmas cards as a tradition that made him feel like he was celebrating like an “adult,” distinct from how he might have as a kid. We had a collective “huh, that’s interesting. Is there something there?”
Turns out holiday cards are fascinating. It’s generally agreed that the first Christmas cards were sent by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in collaboration with the artist J.C. Hayden (Smithsonian). The original was a scene depicting a large group, presumably a family, including children drinking wine above a banner reading “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Cole and Hayden’s cards were a solution to a modern problem: social pressure arising from easily accessible mail. The expansion of the UK’s postal system in the mid 19th century meant that sending letters, one of the main methods of maintaining long-distance connections, was more convenient. Social pressure to send lengthy correspondence to a wider circle of friends increased. For the well connected, like Sir Cole, keeping up with that volume of letter writing was impossible. Holiday cards were an efficient solution: Cole gets to fulfill social obligation without having to commit weeks to drafting lengthy letters. The first cards were postcards with little space, and therefore expectation, for lengthy writing. In 1915, the common book format we are familiar with today was adopted by the Joyce Hall (yes, he and his brothers’ company would eventually become Hallmark). With the support of mass printing techniques Christmas card use became widespread through the 30s through the 50s.
I find this fascinating because we’re now on the other side of this phenomenon, which shifts the meaning of writing holiday cards. What is traditional and nostalgic for us was a cultural and technological novelty only a few generations ago. For Cole, expanded infrastructure changed cultural expectations which drove his adaptation of his existing practice. Cards were more efficient than letters. Now, cards are less efficient that a myriad of communication options: email, text, and social media. Sending a card, then, represents an investment of time rather than efficiency. . I could send holiday greetings by group text if I wanted to fulfill social obligation. Instead, I invested time picking cards, writing notes, affixing stamps, and sending them off. If I send you a card, the practice is different both for the sender and the recipient. The meaning to both parties changes accordingly.
Likewise it begs the question of when a practice becomes ‘traditional’. While sending cards might be traditional and nostalgic for us was a novelty only a few generations ago. Many of us saw parents or grandparents writing cards but it’s likely that many of them didn’t grow up with that experience. Even if they did, their parents would have been introducing or at least modifying a tradition by sending these cards.
On this episode we want to dig into some of the more innocuous holiday traditions, ones that seem like there might not be much there but when to pick at them reveal interesting histories and cultural associations. I also want to dig into this card thing more: what is the experience of sending and reviving cards and how.
Full disclosure, I haven’t actually done Christmas cards in quite a few years. I did get very into making my own back when I used to do a lot more professional photography work. Part of that was that I liked showing off my photography, part of it was that it was fun, and part of it was exactly what Katya said — it made me feel grown up. But it’s also a bunch of work. Part of me wonders if the fact that I basically got too lazy (I like to think busy, but lets be honest) to do Christmas cards means that maybe I wasn’t as grown up as I thought.
Or maybe I just don’t need the tradition. I don’t have kids, so I have no one to really pass traditions onto. I think it’s not just tradition, but kind of “generational tradition”. Katya notes that a big attraction to Christmas cards is memories of her parents and grandparents filling out Christmas cards. I have the same thing. But I think another part of many of these traditions is the idea of “doing them so that you can share them with your kids”. Maybe? I feel like I get a lot more cards from people with families than I do from people without. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a “holiday newsletter” from anyone who doesn’t have kids. OR… maybe parents are just better at having their shit together!
In any case, I think there are probably a bunch of other holiday traditions like that. After all, certainly that’s what stuff like Santa Claus is. Santa’s whole purpose is “something to do with the kids.” Everyone’s been doing it so long that it feels like the nostalgic thing to do… but really basically it amounts to “It’s Christmas! Gaslight your children! Wheee!!!” And sure, the Santa thing has been going on forever… it feels natural. But the official Elf on the Shelf didn’t start til 2005. No one has actually “grown up” with Elf on the Shelf yet… at least not from birth. But it’s super popular.
I think that’s part of our need to make the winter holidays FEEL traditional…. and tradition is based on ritual. Do I have kids? Nope. So I don’t care about an Elf of the Shelf, and as I said, I’ve not bothered with Christmas cards in years. But just today I baked four loaves of zucchini bread — partly because I like the taste, but also, the smell of it baking makes me feel like I’m at my grandmother’s for Christmas. I will put up a tree. I will wrap presents. I will listen my favorite Christmas music both traditional classics and newer. Is it really Christmas without Run DMC? I don’t think so!
So what are your Christmas and traditions? Are they new or old? Are there any that you can’t live without? Are there any that you specifically have gotten rid of? Does it matter if you have children or not? Are holiday traditions important, or should we all just say “bah humbug” and carry on with our winter. Let us know in the comments.