An Ode to Holiday Letter-Writing

Our written holiday greetings offer a reminder that we have not died in the course of the year, and that we still value the personal touch

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Not so long ago one could set one’s watch by the arrival of the post. I live in a quiet street in north-west London, so that used to mean there would a familiar ruffle through the letterbox at 10:20a.m. There would be another delivery around 4. That’s right: two deliveries a day. Now of course there is one, arriving at an unpredictable hour, and containing nothing one would ever miss a heartbeat for. The only certainty today is that there will be no personal letters.

What destructively efficient times we live in. Now of course it’s all emails and texts and tweets, and the effect on revered institutions is becoming dramatic. Canada Post has just announced a curtailment of urban mail deliveries within five years. The US Postal Service is hurting too, recently threatening to end Saturday drops. And in the UK, where the modern postal service was founded in 1840, an uncertain future awaits. The Royal Mail was privatized two months ago; future services may depend less on the needs of customers than the whims of shareholders.

But for this very short festive season there appears to be hope, a minor stay of execution. Having failed to write letters during the rest of the year, we are now catching up, sending greetings to those we barely contact from January to November. Is it guilt that prompts this outpouring? Perhaps a little. But I think we also recognize the greater integrity involved when we touch pen to paper and bother to lick a stamp. In our frantic lives we manage to send a message that says “I still have time for you.” And we may even write more than a card, penning those “our magnificent year” letters that we duplicate and enclose with holiday snaps. These days, even the most smug of these (Don confounding his pre-school principal with his Esperanto, Anthea surprising us all with her wrestling) are increasingly welcome additions on the mat.

We write a letter with a slower cerebral whirring—and frequently with the intimate expression of personal kindness. Without the longer form of the letter, family historians and biographers of the famous will find it harder to document the past with any emotional depth. (Ask yourself whether your grandchildren will ever find any love emails in that treasure trunk of yours.)

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But, as with condolence letters, seasonal greetings may be one of the last great traditions to fall. This year the Christmas card is 170 years old. The first was commissioned in London by Henry Cole in 1843 and designed by a man proudly called John Calcott Horsley. One thousand were printed and then hand-colored, and one imagines the recipients being delighted with the novelty. The card depicted a large family toasting the holiday season with red wine, and as they sat beneath a canopy of vines they were surrounded by two philanthropic scenes of the poor being clothed and fed. The cards took a couple of decades to catch on and spread abroad, but by the mid-1870s the Massachusetts printer Louis Prang was selling his designs to an eager American market. As in England, American cards were largely secular affairs: nativity scenes did feature, but they were outnumbered by picaresque frosty landscapes, robin redbreasts and ivy. And Santa of course.

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Earlier this month I was privileged to be part of an extraordinary event in which the true worth of letters was given the full celebrity endorsement. At a small holly-adorned church in the Notting Hill area of London, actors including Gillian Anderson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliet Stephenson and Kerry Fox appeared alongside writer Neil Gaiman and musician Nick Cave to read letters by the famous (Dickens, Virginia Woolf, David Bowie, Dorothy Parker) and the not-so famous. Among the latter, Fox and Cumberbatch (hotfoot from an international press junket at which he had been promoting his role as Smaug in the new Hobbit move) read from the Christmas correspondence of a British postal worker named Chris Barker and his wife-to-be Bessie Moore. It was 1944, so Barker was fighting in Greece and Moore was dodging bombs in London. Christmas appeared to be both an irrelevance and a vital tie for both of them, and while they regretted not being together they celebrated the ability of the letter to bind them.

Unlike today, it was all they had. Today, the temptations of Skype and the dreaded e-card threaten to derail our trip to the posting box. (I used to think that a pixelated robin alighting on a pixelated snowy branch was an awful thing; now I think it’s better than sending nothing.) But Christmas cards continue to bind us. They offer a reminder that we have not died in the course of the year, and that we still value the personal touch. They will not be enough to rescue the world’s digitally challenged postal systems, but they may just be enough to redeem our digitally challenged souls.

To The Letter, by Simon Garfield is published by Gotham (US) and Canongate (UK).