Why we need to save the Christmas card and the art of letter writing

THE Christmas cards are arriving thick and fast, but as each year goes by, there are fewer of them.

A Royal Mail sorting office as concerns grow that Christmas cards have become a tradition of the past. Do you agree with Andrew Vine that the age of the letter is dead?

Not because I’ve suddenly become a pariah to friends and family, but because of a rather sad little trend towards not sending cards any more.

Instead of the clunk of the letterbox, riffling through the envelopes and the pleasurable recognition of somebody’s handwriting, emails drop into the inbox saying: “I’m not sending cards this year.”

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Usually this is followed by the faintly self-righteous: “I’m making a donation to charity instead.”

Glad to hear it. It’s the time of year to think of others and in this age of austerity and increasing demands on them, charities need all the help they can get.

But basically, the message translates as: “I can’t be bothered sitting down and writing a card, let alone buying a stamp and posting it. And because I feel a bit guilty about it, I’ll try to salve my conscience by giving something to charity. But I won’t just do that quietly. I’m letting everybody know, so they’ll think I’m a good egg.”

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I suspect I’m not alone in regretting the trend away from sending cards. It feels to me like a part of the goodwill of Christmas is being chipped away.

And I just don’t get this awkward and contrived link between not sending cards and helping charities.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Buying cards from charities gives their coffers a valuable annual boost, and it being Christmas, how about stumping up a few extra bob as well when you do it?

An email is simply no substitute for a card. It’s just another among the billions dashed off every day, as quickly and, likely as not, brusquely as possible, totally lacking the personal touch.

I absolutely love writing and sending cards. It’s a joy to break out the fountain pen from the drawer where it lives for the rest of the year and sitting down to work through the list, thinking what to write to each person.

Leafing through the address book reminds me of those who I should have kept in closer contact with, but haven’t, and makes me resolve to do better in the New Year.

It’s the same for those who send me cards. It can’t be a coincidence that Christmas and its aftermath always brings a flurry of phone calls at which catch-ups are arranged.

The cards do that. They bring people closer in an age where hectic lives often drive them apart, renewing friendships and relationships, which is sociable and life-enhancing, and all for the sake of taking a little time out to put pen to paper.

The age of letter-writing is lost, and we’re the poorer for it. The days of setting down thoughts and feelings on paper carried so much more meaning and depth than banging out yet another email ever could.

There’s something magical about getting a hand-written card or letter. The personality of the writer is there in every stroke of the pen and the fact that it’s taken some time to compose means somebody is really thinking about whoever they are writing to.

Opening the envelope and finding someone’s words and thoughts brings with it a glow of warmth and appreciation that no email, or text, can ever replicate.

How precious a feeling this is was underlined by last week’s report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, founded by the late Batley and Spen MP.

Among its findings was that the Writing Back project, in which Leeds University students become pen-pals with older Yorkshire residents, is helping greatly to alleviate loneliness.

And if we don’t reach out to others at Christmas, then when do we? The cards on the mantelpiece are tangible reminders of friendship or family ties, and carry an emotional charge because of that.

We shouldn’t under-estimate the power of a card or letter to raise the spirits. A few years ago, I spent some time with British troops serving in Afghanistan. Amid the dangers they faced every day in that bleak and treacherous landscape, one 
thing was guaranteed to cheer them up.

It was the arrival of letters from home. Even though the men could keep in touch with regular phone calls and emails, there was something special about having a letter in their hands.

The sheets of paper each held had come direct from the hands of somebody who loved them. I saw battle-hardened fighting men deeply moved by that.

They lingered over writing back, because for however long they could spin it out, it felt like they were in direct emotional contact with those dearest to them. Those soldiers knew all about the magic of a card or letter, and that’s why they treasured them so.

The “not sending cards this year” brigade have forgotten that magic. It’s their loss, and they don’t know what they’re missing.