I‘d like to report a bit of bah humbug that has me particularly troubled. In recent years, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer Christmas cards landing in my mailbox. At first, I convinced myself the reason was because we moved across the country, changing addresses after 20 years at the same location. Probably the forwarding orders expired, I told myself that first year. But the next year our annual stash of merry greetings continued to shrink. So, I did a little research.
It turns out that Christmas is the largest card-sending holiday in the United States — an estimated 1.3 billion cards sent annually by Hallmark’s calculation. Even so, fewer Americans are sending the one-time holiday staple, and analysts predict the market for traditional holiday greetings will continue to dwindle over the next several years.
According to one report by Research and Markets, “the advent of digitalization, social media platforms and messaging apps such as WhatsApp” are to blame. It seems that electronic holiday greetings have become a popular alternative to the old-fashioned glitter and foil variety. Then, there’s the cost of postage. The price of a first-class Forever stamp increased from 58 cents to 60 cents in 2022 and will tick-up another 3 cents in January. Surely the Postmaster General’s price adjustment is another incremental factor impacting my card count.
So, it’s them, not me. That’s a relief. It’s market forces at work. But maybe this Scroogey trend is the sign of an even bigger cultural shift. More research.
In fact, it’s not just the once-ubiquitous Christmas card that has taken a hit. Apparently, people in the 21st century write fewer letters overall. According to data from the U.S. Postal Service, the volume of first-class mail processed in the U.S. peaked around the year 2000, with more than 103.5 billion pieces delivered. The first-class rate is intended for personal and business correspondence, the most common way to send envelopes or lightweight packages fast and for a low-cost. USPS statistics show a steep decline in the volume of first-class mail, with a mere 50.7 billion pieces delivered in 2021. That’s half the volume from just two decades ago.
Not too surprising, mailbags started getting lighter about the same time email usage became popular among the general population. Though commonly used within business, academic, and government circles in the late 1980s, email became part of the broader pop-culture lexicon by the late-1990s. Remember the box office hit, You’ve Got Mail? The much-loved romcom starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan hit theaters in 1998, just as America’s letter writing habits began to dip.
So, the dearth of Christmas cards in my mailbox does in fact portend a more worrisome trend: the art of correspondence is being lost, victim to the immediacy of email, instant messaging, and texts. What a shame.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fully entrenched in the digital age like us all. I have a Bitmoji avatar. My monthly texting messages surpass those of my children and husband combined. And when I’m done writing this article, I will send it in an email to my editor, whom I see more often in my inbox than in person. The suggestion here is not to turn up our noses at technology. Rather, it is to pause and consider what is lost when we make the choice to tap out a few 160-character messages instead of crafting a thoughtful, hand-written note.
Putting pen to paper is more than a quaint habit of a bygone era. The value of letter writing includes historical collection, personal connection and individual reflection.
Letters savored, shared and lovingly (or sometimes secretly) preserved become epistolary time capsules, small testaments to the thoughts and feelings, experiences, and whimsical moments that speak to the human condition. Pieced together, other documents — diaries, public records, contracts, reports, treaties, and more — create an essential framework to understand the thread of history. But often it is personal letters, notes, and correspondence that provide the depth of character that makes history relatable.
Shaun Usher is a self-proclaimed letter nerd. Since 2009, he has managed an online museum of correspondence called Letters of Note where he collects, curates and celebrates the humble letter. He is also the author of a bestselling volume by the same name that showcases an eclectic assortment correspondence — everything from Queen Elizabeth’s handwritten note and personal recipe for scones shared with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to a masterful riposte from a freed slave to his old master, to a job application letter from Leonardo da Vinci.
In his introduction, Usher writes, “I am hopeful that [these letters] will captivate you as they have me and whisk you to a point in time far more effectively than the average history book. Indeed, I can think of no better way to learn about the past than through the often candid correspondence of those who lived it.”
I happen to agree. Letters preserved over time give us a grand sense of history. One wonders if emails, texts and instant messages will sufficiently capture the nuances of our generation for future historians – or, if they do, what they will show. After all, personal letters corroborate historical facts, but more importantly, they add flavor and charm to our shared stories. Consider the prolific correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for example. In the early decades of America’s founding, the pair exchanged more than 325 letters, debating topics as diverse as commerce, good governance, war, and education—an historian’s goldmine. Yet it is the more subtle aspects of character revealed in this spirited back and forth that prove most intriguing: Jefferson’s unceasing curiosity, Adams’ devotion to husbandry, their shared sense of awe at the magnitude of their rarified view of history.
It was Adams, in his waning years, who recognized the value of their unique correspondence for generations yet unborn: “I hope one day your letters will be published in volumes,” he wrote Jefferson in the summer of 1822. “They will not always appear Orthodox, or liberal in politiks; but they will exhibit a Mass of Taste, Sense, Literature and Science, presented in a sweet simplicity and a neat elegance of Stile, which will be read with delight in future ages.”
Of course, letters of great historical importance need not originate from the desks of dignitaries alone. Letters written nearly two centuries ago by adventurous sojourners along the Oregon Trail give us first-hand accounts of the raw grit and determination that was required to expand a nation — and the human costs of such an endeavor. Likewise, battlefield letters from distant places like Verdun, Bastogne, Peleliu, Long Binh, Fallujah and Helmand Province reveal the real-life imagery, misery, and struggle of war. Then, there are the family letters, tucked away in attics or uncovered by arm-chair genealogists. All fill in the small but significant details of our collective histories.
When we follow history, we can’t help but find personal, authentic and compelling letters. And the reason is, letter writing is an essential expression of personal connection.
I have a box on the top shelf of my closet. It’s not particularly fancy, but it is one of those items I would grab if there were a fire at my home. It contains cards and letters and other small mementos I’ve collected through the years. Love letters from my husband. Letters of encouragement from my mother while I was living abroad with my young family. A few get well cards following a major surgery. And yes, several sentimental and nostalgic Christmas cards. Occasionally I will take that box off the shelf and sift through the contents. I feel connected with loved ones when I do, even those whom I have not seen or talked to in a while.
Cards and letters bring us closer together, and connection is something we need in large doses these days. Way back in 2018, health insurer Cigna released a study that revealed loneliness had reached epidemic levels in America. Nearly half of respondents reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. And that’s before the Covid pandemic slammed into our reality and increased the isolation quotient around the world. The Cigna study also concluded that humans are social animals (not a particularly radical finding) and underscored the importance of community for human flourishing (also not a radical conclusion, but certainly an essential one).
Obviously, in-person interaction is the most satisfying form of community. It allows for true connection, a sharing of experiences and comradery. Even our friend Mr. Jefferson felt that longing as he wrote to Mr. Adams across the miles: “An hour of conversation would be worth a volume of letters. But we must take things as they come.”
In the absence of presence, letters at least convey a deep sense of closeness. Implicit in a handwritten note is the knowledge that the sender carved out time for the recipient. While the average person dashes off dozens of emails and countless texts each day, writing a letter requires a slower, more thoughtful pace. So too, the reading of personal words on a page is more focused, creating an unmistakable bond between sender and receiver.
I feel that bond each time I receive an envelope from Compassion International. I know it will contain a letter from one of the children I sponsor. I have never met these children in person, yet I am invested in their words and stories. They draw me pictures and share details of their lives. I reciprocate with words of encouragement and descriptions of my day.
Former President George H.W. Bush shared a similar relationship with a little boy living in the Philippines. In his first letter to the boy, Bush wrote, “I want to be your new pen pal. I am an old man, 77 years old, but I love kids; and though we have not met I love you already. I live in Texas. I will write from time to time. Good luck.” The two developed a warm relationship through letter writing, and it was only years later that the boy learned who his correspondence companion had been. The revelation was a welcome surprise, but it was the steady, heartfelt, and personal connection of an “old man” that left its mark on the boy.
Even the sensory nature of letters binds us together. With letters, unlike electronic communication, our eyes see a recognizable script on the page. Our hands hold the very paper the author has also touched. We may even detect the scent of a familiar perfume or the unintended smudge of lipstick in the corner. All tangible reminders that we are linked to others and part of a timeless continuum.
In sheets of scribbled-on stationary or folded card stock we find more than connection and historical relevance, however. Letter writing affords a unique opportunity for individual reflection — for the sender and receiver alike.
Words have influence and when packaged in the form of a carefully crafted letter, they have the power to inspire, encourage and instruct. Milestones such as births, baptisms, graduations, marriages, and deaths make excellent letter writing moments. Here, we are inclined to pause and reflect philosophically on the enormity of life and put into words the bits of wisdom we’ve accumulated over time. Such reflection may be aimed at the reader, but the first person effected is invariably the one holding the pen.
By way of example, we can look to one of history’s most noted and beloved writers, the apostle Paul. By most accounts, Paul is credited with having written 13 of the 21 epistles or letters found in the New Testament. His words are foundational to an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Though his preaching was directed largely at early Christian believers, his words continue to inspire seekers two millennia later. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (v 1:16). Imagine being the first generation after the cross to hear that message, that Jesus offers soul salvation to whoever believes in him. Radical in the 1st century but no less profound today.
Indeed, readers past and present have pondered Paul’s many themes. For example, to the Galatians he wrote of justification by faith alone: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (v 16a)
To the believers in Philippi Paul’s message was that of encouragement: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.” (v 4:6-7)
And to the church in Colossae, he offered instructions on living the Christian life by putting on a new self: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom … and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (v 3:15-17)
Paul’s words have inspired contemplation and celebration throughout the ages. In his time, those words were recorded on papyrus, shared communally, then eventually gathered with the gospels and other scripture into a single volume — one that modern Christians meditate on daily. Imagine if Paul had been sending his missives via email, easily deleted or altered and lost to time.
In our own letter writing, likely none of us will rise to the stature of a Paul or a president. We do, however, each have influence within our own intimate spheres — our children, extended family, co-workers, and friends. Whether in the boardroom or the classroom, on the home front or around the neighborhood, there are opportunities to praise, start a conversation, encourage or inspire with our words. When the vehicle is a handwritten letter, the impact is fresh with every reading and preserved for the possibility of touching audiences unknown and unintended.
During the height of WWII, when families were separated and circumstances were unsure, Hallmark launched a memorable marketing campaign with one of the most recognized slogans in advertising history: “When you care enough to send the very best.” Even in today’s fast-paced digital economy, taking time to drop a card or letter in the mail is a meaningful and enduring way to let someone know you care . . . that they are special . . . they matter . . . and they are not alone. The arrival of an unexpected envelope — one that does not contain a bill or solicitation but a personal, heartfelt greeting — is a warm and inviting way to connect and reflect while adding to the collection of human history.
And now, if you’ll please excuse me. I have a few Christmas cards to write!
 Shaun Usher, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2017).
 Lester J. Cappon (editor), The Adams-Jefferson Letters: A Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 582.
 Ibid, 467.