Grading the Holiday Cards



By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



Why do we send holiday cards? We want to connect with friends and relatives with best wishes for the season; we want to alert recipients to changes in the family; and just maybe we want to brag a little about Junior’s college graduation or his sister’s wedding. I’ll admit up front that we love to get the cards in all their wide variety of styles and holidays celebrated, whether Christmas or Hannukah or yet another celebration. But one needs to be cautious in the process of sending one out.

We’re enjoying the trickle of New Year’s cards this January. We, too, send New Year’s cards, since we have hopes of getting a family picture at Christmas, although Covid foiled our plan this Christmas. Our own New Year’s card needed more than one photo to include the whole family. The intermittent arrival of New Year’s cards gives one a chance to appreciate the effort that we know goes into getting a card together, not to mention writing an accompanying letter. In December, the flood of Christmas cards makes it harder to focus on each one. And then we have two friends who send Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day cards respectively. All fine.

I don’t want to suggest that we don’t like getting cards. We love to hear from out-of- town friends in particular and from Chicago friends as well. But there are pitfalls. This year, we’ve found ourselves critiquing cards and felt it was only fair that we should share our observations for your edification. Note that the examples below are samples taken from commercial card sales internet sites and are not any we received ourselves.

We’ve noticed that photo cards are by far the most popular…we made the switch, too. It’s a great way to introduce new family members (and show how well we’ve aged!). But here’s problem #1: who’s in the pictures? Some cards are happily captioned. Some show just the couple sending the card. Easy to identify. But many, particularly the multiple-photo cards, force a guessing game. Is that picture from the trip to Florida or the visit with Aunt Agnes in San Diego? Is the older woman Aunt Agnes or our friend who’s changed her hair color? I fear we’re guilty of this very captioning issue, but we felt it didn’t matter. Does it?

And then there’s the choice of photo. Many are too small to make out anything but a mob, albeit well organized, of people trying to smile at the same time. Others are great… of just three out of four people in the shot, with one set of eyes closed or a frown. I fear our card may have had at least one example of this. But it’s hard to find the perfect picture of every child and grandchild!

Who’s who?

What about clarity? Some friends wisely incorporate photos into Christmas letters, but photos are often too small to see clearly or were compromised in the copying process. We added copy to the back of ours, but that created a new problem, a background print that made it slightly difficult to read. We picked it because it was more interesting than a plain background. Hmm. 
And then there is the letter/card copy itself. Some are a laundry list of the year’s travels, usually to wonderful destinations we wish we had seen or alternatively to see relatives we don’t know. I assume no one wants to leave out a visited cousin. Some people like to avoid difficult subjects, understandably, some are necessary. The transition from the death of Aunt Agnes to Junior’s championship baseball season has to be carefully handled. Sometimes there is too much information. Do we really need to know that Junior in fact flunked his exam? (Yes, we actually got one that included this).
Many of us have had the problem of picking the best photo… or not. Six to eight photos of one’s
child is probably more than necessary. But the pictures are all so cute…and every family
member plays with the youngest.

Multiples necessary?

Of course, some people and organizations, both nonprofit and commercial, choose not to send photo cards. There is a recognizable style for corporate cards. In fact, we usually get at least two duplicates. The elements are a single color often blue with gold or silver lettering, a holiday neutral message (Happy Holidays is usual), and a heartfelt thank-you for one’s business. Makes sense, but boring. Yet would a photo of one’s office building be an improvement?


The personal non-photo cards tend to have Santa, animals, snow, and occasionally a religious theme. Sometimes elegant, often cutesy. I like to save and recycle these as gift cards for next year, cutting off the picture and writing new messages on the back if it’s free of personal notes.

Among my personal favorites are cards from nonprofits that work with children. These are usually charming and remind one of the mission of the group.

Children’s charity


A final warning. Be sure the postage is correct! Two forever stamps for square envelopes and international postage for your friends abroad. My English friends will get their card very late. I had inadvertently forgotten to keep their card separate for extra postage. I got it back last week.

So, it turns out that sending holiday cards can be a fraught process. Photos or pictures? What pictures? How do family members look? Captions or not? Christmas or some other holiday? Do we talk about difficult topics? One needs to acknowledge family deaths and births, but how to do it gracefully.

Here’s a check list for your cards next season:

Pick good photos
Identify people and locations
Seek elegance and charm over cuteness
Beware of laundry lists
Watch out for boring
Aim for clarity of copy
Handle difficult subjects with care
Avoid too much information – review copy with subjects
Check the postage

I realize as I review this that I too need to be thoughtful when choosing our card next year. I’ll think about captions!