The poor mail carriers have to deliver an average of about 55 cards per family, amounting to a national total of about 3.5 billion, and they are all supposed to arrive within about 10 days of Christmas.

The poor mail carriers have to deliver an average of about 55 cards per family, amounting to a national total of about 3.5 billion, and they are all supposed to arrive within about 10 days of Christmas.

by Robert Davis

I remember the exact date well – Sunday, October 26 of this year – because it was the anniversary of my mother’s death. The weather was unusually mild, so when I saw our neighbor, Anthony, out in his backyard, I asked if he’d like to shoot up some baskets. (Anthony put up a hoop a couple years ago for his son.) “I’d love to shoot ’em up,” he replied, “but I have to go inside and do our Christmas cards.”

“Are you joking?” I replied. “It’s two months away.”

“I know,” he said, “but I have zillions of business clients and relatives to send them to, and if I put it off till later, then it won’t get done. Every year we start on the Christmas cards early, sometimes at the end of summer.”

Anthony said that about 10 years ago, one of his children found a stack of stamped, addressed envelopes and took it upon himself to mail them at the Mount Airy post office. More than 100 friends and relatives, as a result, wound up getting Christmas greetings from Anthony and his wife before Labor Day!! The amazing thing is that most did not even seem surprised, except for a cousin in Minnesota, who thought it was the previous year’s card and who proceeded to berate his mail carrier.

This is just one more once-charming custom that has turned into an obsession for so many Americans. And this is not exactly a tradition started by the Three Wise Men, who reportedly brought no Hallmark cards to the manger. According to a post office spokesman, the custom was initiated by an illustrator in Roxbury, Massachusetts, around 1880.

Today, of course, Christmas cards have become a multi-billion dollar industry. The poor mail carriers have to deliver an average of about 55 cards per family, amounting to a national total of about 3.5 billion, and they are all (except for Phil’s cards) supposed to arrive within about 10 days of Christmas.

Some organized households have lengthy lists from previous years. But most of us just make a stab in the dark, rummaging through almost illegible address books for names and stretching our memories to include this year’s new clients, friends, neighbors, etc.

In our house, one of two things usually happens. Either we don’t buy enough cards, or we buy too many. So we run out before we get through letter K, or we just get exhausted. Last year we mailed the first half of the alphabet Dec. 21 and promised ourselves that we’d get to L-Z this year. One benefit of skipping half your friends, of course, is that it cuts your expenses in half. However, some of them retaliate (understandably) by dropping you from their list. But that gives you a chance to get even by following suit.

Christmas carding, you see, is often a game of one-upmanship. It manifests itself in several ways. One insidious ploy is to mail a card to someone who is new on your list and have it arrive so close to the holiday that he can’t get one back to you on time. If you are feeling especially mean, you may even leave your return address off your envelope.

A second type of cardmanship takes the form of the home display. Scotch-taped to the walls or hung over the Venetian blinds are the season’s cards. If you’re having friends in for hot apple cider, as you invariably do if you have over 100 cards, the guests begin to feel like friendless outcasts as they mentally compare their pathetic take with yours.

We visited the center city apartment of newly-weds last year when the young couple was having a contest. They had posted their cards in His, Hers and Theirs categories. The His wall was woefully meager. The next day I sent him an envelope with more than a dozen cards so he could win the competition. I’m not sure they found it amusing, however, because we haven’t heard from them since then.

Another kind of gamesmanship is the long note, with more personal details than you’d reveal to your psychiatrist in 10 sessions. The most common example of this is the photocopied letter that may run on for pages. It tells everything except how often the family brushed their teeth in the past year, and it invariably uses first names only. “Susie was hit by a car and broke a leg.” (Is Susie a dog or a girl?) “Ed’s company has transferred him to Timbuktu.” (Who the hell is Ed?)

These dissertations apparently go out to everyone except inmates in prison. We could probably cut the federal budget deficit in half if they were outlawed. Sometimes I have no idea whom they came from, but the worst thing about them is that they make me feel I’ve done just about nothing in the past year by comparison.

Another kind of card that should be banned is the cute photo of the senders’ children. They always look so well-groomed and innocent in these photos that you can almost forget they use drugs, call their parents four-letter words and pretty much behave in public like junior storm troopers.

Instead of getting upset about this mania, I suppose we should all look at Christmas carding as a strictly business matter and forget the sentiment. Let’s admit that the purchase of 3.5 billion of anything is stimulating the economy and let it go at that.

Such an admission would avoid the shock, for example, that came last year when a Chestnut Hill couple received a card from a well-wishing lawyer-friend addressed to “Richard M. and Diane F. Jones, or either one, or any survivor.”

The strictly practical approach would allow me to be a mite less cynical about the greeting cards sent by computer, the ones with printed names and no personal message, the cards that are sent out by politicians at taxpayers’ expense, and the ultra religious ones like the one I got last year that said, “Have you tried the power of Jesus Christ? The results will truly amaze you!”

But even as I write these words, the mailman’s latest delivery has brought us up to the national average of 55 (cards received). Imagine how many more I’d get if I weren’t Jewish.