Every holiday season I wait with some anticipation for the Christmas cards to roll in showcasing how much my nieces and nephews have grown. When I became a parent, I entered the fray with enthusiasm. And then I truly understood how much work is involved in sending holiday cards. 

If you're going the box card route, you need to plan for handwriting each card. Of course, you can potentially save some time with a “Christmas letter” or newsletter, but you’re still stuffing and addressing envelopes, getting stamps, and hunting for a mailbox. Not to mention tracking down and confirming addresses for people you may not speak to very often but, for the sake of family and friendship, are on your holiday card list. Nowadays, technology does help. You can send a virtual card. Or you can have cards printed with your family photo(s) and a sweet message which cuts down on the amount of writing you personally have to do, but then then envelopes, stamps, and mailboxes are still a factor—unless you’re willing to pay the premium to have an online company address and mail for you. And it’s expensive (before you even factor in the holiday photos shoots that some people stage specifically for their holiday card). But the greeting card business is booming. Americans send 1.3 billion holiday cards annually. And this constitutes about 25% of the total annual greeting card sales. So why do we do it if it’s such a hassle? Why does this tradition persist?

First and foremost, the practice of sending written holiday greetings is not new. But these greetings didn’t take the form of a Christmas card until 1843 when Sir. Henry Cole sought an expedient means of clearing the backlog of mail on his desk that demanded an answer. The Victorians viewed responding to mail as a social obligation, and it is believed that Cole—though he worked for the post office—had fallen behind on his correspondence. So he asked an artist by the name of John Callcott Horsley to create a card for him. The final product read “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” and featured a a festive family engaged in a toast. He mailed this to 1000 people and was satisfied that he had fulfilled his social letter-writing obligation. 

The idea quickly caught on but the practice was expensive. In 1875 Louis Prang introduced the mass production of a chromolithographed card in the United States. It was reasonably priced and the design was relatively appealing: a simple red flower with the words “Merry Christmas.” It was an instant success and by the 1880s, he was allegedly printing five million Christmas cards a year. Technology progressed and print production became cheaper in the 1890s. More manufacturers entered the market, and the quality of the cards declined. The cards also largely began to look the same: most featuring cherubic children and angels. The twentieth-century introduced a new printing technique that yielded prints that were more photographic in nature. And the variety of subjects for the cards also increased to include sports, landscapes, and patriotic drawings. The new content and technique would propel the industry onward and inject renewed interest in the tradition of Christmas cards.

The practice remained popular because it offered a means of maintaining connections—both familial and otherwise. As industrialization took hold and families were scattered in pursuit of work, cards were a simple way of retaining contact and asserting kinship across distance. The work of upholding these connections historically fell to women. Kinship work is the creation, upkeep, and recognition of cross household relationships, and includes arranging visits, writing letters, making phone calls, purchasing presents, and sending cards to relatives and friends. Anthropologist Micaela di Leonardi maintains that kinship work is an extension of our domestic networks. Families do not end within the physical space of a single home, but can be connected across roads and bridges and state lines. The time and skill required to cultivate relationships may be leveraged as a political tool within our networks. Think about this in terms of being removed from someone’s holiday card list or not invited to a family holiday gathering. It sends a definite message—which is why people will offer an invitation sometimes even fully knowing that a person will not attend.

Why is this gendered? In her research, di Leonardi found that family histories revealed that kin contact and holiday gatherings were often dependent on the presence of a adult female in the household. When couples divorced, connections with relatives and family gatherings lapsed until there was a remarriage. The death of the matriarch often meant the end of familial gatherings or a reduced version of what the family had known before. Family holiday nostalgia is often rooted in the remembered actions of our mothers and grandmothers. For example, the presence of a favorite holiday recipe from your grandmother may be central to your holiday celebration. Without it, you may feel that the holiday is missing something or is less than what you remembered. And di Leonardi suggests this is because kinship work is not work where men are able to substitute hired labor. It is not housecleaning or cooking or even the rearing of their children in the absence of their original partner. This requires an actual connection from someone who belongs—who is one of the family—and thus far the burden of time required for these types of connections has fallen to women. Negotiating the control of kin networks becomes a source of power for women: in establishing one’s family as the center of the kin network, it's important who does the big holiday dinner.

Kinship work is a competing demand for women juggling domestic and paid labor. But because it’s largely unlabeled, women do feel they have the option to manage it more on their own terms. As a result, they may give over some responsibilities to another kinswoman; for example, a mother-in-law may allow her daughter-in-law to assume Christmas eve dinner or to coordinate the gift exchange during the holidays. Kinship labor is more likely to suffer at the hands of wage labor or immediate family needs, so things like holiday cards or telephone calls (which cannot be passed to someone else to manage) may lapse if there is a need to save on time. That’s not without a price: women often report feelings of guilt or get defensive about the perceived sense that they are not meeting a social obligation. 

Christmas (or holiday) cards have helped with the obligations of kin work. Women purchase an estimated 80% of all greeting cards. And while anyone can send or receive a card, holiday cards in particular do seem to be an exercise in family-making. Perhaps this is why they seem to be extremely popular with newlyweds or families with young children. Anecdotally, I have less cards from people who are well established with their marriages and families than those who are more recent to the game. Marriage and the birth of children represent transitional moments for a family as well, so Christmas cards may help establish newer members in the larger kin network, especially if that network is widely dispersed.

Regardless of who presently wears the mantle of kinship work in your family, if holiday cards a part of your family’s traditions, there are options that may make this less of a time burden provided you are willing to pay for the service.

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Di Leonardo, M. (1987). The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship. Signs, 12(3), 440-453. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174331


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Image Credit: Krystal D'Costa