A Mailbox of Memories, by Maureen Taylor

holiday mailbox.jpgI can’t wait to open my mailbox during the holiday season. It’s like opening a treasure box every time someone sends a note telling me about their year. There are a number of people who are in touch only once a year and seeing their handwriting makes my beat-up letter box the bearer of memories.

The tradition of sending holiday greetings is centuries old. The first Christmas greetings weren’t cards but letters, something similar to those mass-produced notes written by families today. Instead of printed missives, they were handwritten, but those holiday wishes have a lot in common with the ones handed out today because they shared family news.

According to the Encyclopedia of Christmas by Tanya Gulevich (Omnigraphics, 2000), the first cards celebrated New Year’s, with the earliest surviving example from 1466. It was a fad that didn’t last. The holiday cards we send today began in England only in the 1840s. These small, non-folding cards included decorative elements such as flowers and lace because their designs actually evolved from Valentines.

Gulevich suggests that changes in the British postal system in the 1840s popularized the sending of printed cards. Instead of addressees paying for receipt of a letter, the penny post allowed senders to cover the expense. Not surprisingly, mail delivery doubled. Americans longing for cards imported them from England. They weren’t available in the United States until 1875, when German immigrant Louis Prang began printing them for all occasions including one for Christmas. Learn more about Christmas cards from the Collector Café.

Walk into any store today and shelves are full of boxed greetings ready for mailing or you can make your own using software to create personalized messages. My English friends laugh about the American tradition of sending photo cards; they aren’t commonplace overseas yet. In past years our mailbox was stuffed full of envelopes, but this seems to be changing. Unfortunately, sending cards is a waning tradition. This makes all the ones we’ve ever received special.

So what do you do with your cards after the holiday is over? Some people recycle them using the colorful designs for present tags while most get discarded. Think before you toss. Here are some reasons to keep what you’ve received.

  • If you’re the family genealogist those notes and messages often contain news about events–weddings, deaths, and births. Tuck those notes away in a file and import that data into your family tree.
  • If you’re sending out letters, use good quality paper that’s acid-free so they’ll last in your cousin’s filing cabinet. Acid-free paper is readily available at office supply stores.
  • Keep the photo cards. Some members of my husband’s family send us a family photo every year. Arranging those in order creates a photographic timeline that enables you to watch the children grow from year to year. Don’t forget to retain one of your own photo cards for your own collection.
  • I’ve kept some of the cards relatives sent me when I was a kid. (Okay, I admit it. I’m a saver.) While many of those people are now gone, I have an example of their signature to use in a family history. Looking for a creative present idea? Ask members of the family to sign their name and frame them as a set. Don’t forget to date the piece. It’s like a signature quilt or an autograph album. Looking at familiar cursive brings back lots of memories.

It’s time for me to replace my mailbox with something a little more substantial that alludes to its important duty–holding holiday greetings from friends and family. If you want to learn more about Christmas traditions, check out The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by Gerry Bowler (M & S, 2000) and Amy Whorf McGuiggan’s Christmas in New England: A Treasury of Traditions, from the Yule Log and the Christmas Tree to Flying Santa and the Enchanted Village (Commonwealth Editions, 2006).

When Maureen Taylor isn’t cooking for a crowd, she’s writing about family history and photography. Visit her on the Web at http://www.photodetective.com.

2 thoughts on “A Mailbox of Memories, by Maureen Taylor

  1. I enjoyed your article. I have kept all of the Christmas photos of my sons (with and without Santa) since 1979 as well as the family letters I’ve written since 1984. I saved them all in clear sleeves in a notebook I bring out every year and put on my coffee table. My sons read them every year and my new daughter-in-law and other son’s girlfriend have read them for the last 3 years. They’ve really enjoyed catching a glimpse of our family over the years. I have written them since before they were accepted or “fashionable” and am grateful for the diary I’ve collected. Happily my son and daughter-in-law followed the tradition by writing their own Christmas letter this year. It too will go in my notebook.

    I appreciated the comments on acid free paper and will keep that in mind from now on.

  2. I have saved ALL Christmas, birthday, etc. cards for about the past 20 years! I even save the envelopes. My husband thinks I am crazy! After the holiday, they get put into a large zip bag, with a year on the front. It is like looking in a time capsule–seeing cards sent by relatives that have passed, looking at what postage used to cost.

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