Received wisdom is that it’s always good to get into a business that makes money on Christmas Day. And it could be argued that Christmas cards fall into that category. The Greeting Card Association told me that in 2015 we bought 1 billion Christmas cards (boxed and single) in the UK, at a cost of £384 million. Those figures are staggering – almost as astonishing as it is to find that greetings cards have banded together to form an association, the little tinkers – but doubt me not, for here is the Greeting Card Association’s website, and you’ll see that they’ve been enveloping one another since 1919.
Anyway, we might therefore conclude that we Brits each has at least 15 friends and splashes out an average of 0.38½p apiece on cards for them (up a penny on last year, I reckon). Ah, you say, but we should exclude non-Christians and curmudgeons from our calculations. And it’s a fair point, though I can tell you from first-hand experience that some unbelieving curmudgeons certainly buy and send Christmas cards.
So I bought some Christmas cards this week, the ones I was going to tippex over and re-use from last year having mysteriously vanished. Boxed and packaged, they cost me between £0.20p and £0.90p per unit, though in fairness they included several that are so naff even I would be embarrassed to send them, even to people on the fringes of the official list, on the cusp of relegation to festive oblivion. Incidentally, I prefer to buy charity cards – so as much as nought point two five pence per card goes to a worthy cause – help for impoverished dentists and lawyers, or whatever. Habitually, a special, single, card is purchased for Head Office. Despite my best efforts, the price of these has steadily crept up over the years, to more than £1.00; in fact, don’t tell, but nowadays it’s hard to find a decent one for under a fiver. One year, I bought a card the size of a small encyclopaedia in the hope that this would be a life-long investment: true, it is lovingly dusted down and displayed each Yuletide; but I still feel happily obliged to buy another.
Then there’s the cost of postage. I try to avoid posting the Memsahib’s card (it would look bad, wouldn’t it?), but a good proportion of recipients live further away and therefore require a stamp. That noble body, the Royal Mail, currently charges a minimum of £0.55p or £0.64p (both up a penny on last year) to convey what it arrogantly and inaccurately refers to as ‘non-valuable items. It’s only when you have experienced Royal Mail’s complete absence of customer care that you really appreciate what they mean by ‘non-valuable’. The cost of postage depends on whether you are hoping the item will arrive the following day, or when Royal Mail feel like delivering it, as well as the object’s weight and size. Contrary to urban myth, you do not pay extra to have your mail sorted by people who can read; that is a matter of pure chance. I’m still trying to fathom out why a card and some photos to a favourite aunt in South Africa, which cost almost £5 to post, had to be dispatched about a month before 25th December – given that, wherever you are in Britain, no international airport is more than a few hours away and that flights depart to South Africa several times daily. Do we believe that South African mail is that bad? No, we do not; we believe that someone is grossly inefficient, conning us, or both.
Add the cost of postage to the cost of cards and you can see that this market is worth a small fortune. The profit margins on cards must be immense – almost as high as soft drinks in restaurants. I was struck with the comparison that Simon Kelner, writing in 2014 in the Independent, made with a newspaper. He observed that a newspaper contains (and I paraphrase) “many, many thousands of words – the same number that you’ll find in an average-sized novel – all carefully chosen, and then edited. …lots of colour pictures, cartoons, jokes, a crossword or two, and all the news that’s fit to print. What’s more, it arrives fresh every morning.” Quality newspapers in the UK cost over £1 and sales are declining. Individual greetings cards, a piece of lightweight board with a picture or two, which might include a little glitter and bonhomie – perhaps also some gushingly awful verse – cost at least that and, if we believe the Greeting Card Association, sales are increasing.
This last claim might surprise you. You thought people gave fewer cards than hitherto, didn’t you? Certainly, sending cards and using the post do not seem to be much of a younger person’s thing – and I researched this thoroughly by texting my favourite daughter and one of my favourite nieces (see what I did there?). With social media, do we need to bother with Christmas cards anymore? Some people eschew Christmas cards on environmental grounds, or profess to give the money to charity instead – a declaration I generally take with a hefty fistful of salt. Perhaps increased Christmas card sales is indicative of an aging population more inclined to use this medium to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. What do you think? Do you send cards? Are you aging? I suspect most of us are…
When I ran a business with offices and employees, I used to send and receive scores of Christmas cards. Many came from people I’d never met and, occasionally, were sent to people I barely knew too. It was a ritual – bluntly, a sales opportunity, a reminder that the product or service is there for the buying and that those behind it are warm, cuddly, real, human beings. These days, we still receive what you might call unsolicited Christmas cards – which I swiftly put in a drawer, only to be displayed when neighbours call and we need to demonstrate how loved we are. But, though somewhat more than 15, the number sent is certainly lower than it used to be. Nevertheless, they are dispatched in a genuine spirit of goodwill rather than through any sense of obligation, to people we particularly feel we want to wish well at this time of the rolling year. How many do you send?
Of course, as already suggested, not everyone indulges in this festive contact ritual. The friendless, Christmas killjoys, Scrooges and many of those who have another or no faith give it a miss. The greeting card industry already caters for other faiths’ festivals, such as Eid, and could surely take the opportunity to market a few anti-seasonal greetings cards, along the ‘Bah, humbug!’ vein. There you go, Hallmark; don’t forget my percentage, will you?
Given a little organisation, including pre-printed address labels (a practice I highly recommend), writing Christmas cards can be immensely enjoyable. Sit down with a comfortable pen, a pile of cards, a little schmaltzy music and perhaps a glass of something – and off you go. Some people enclose a Christmas missive (or missile) in the form of a standard letter – what is known as a ‘round robin’ in the UK. This is a fabulous opportunity to gloat mind-numbingly about our holidays, thus enriching the miserable lives of less fortunate souls reading our litany of pleasure. Or, we can take the opportunity to describe our latest medical ailments in graphically gory terms – and of course recount every minor achievement of our offspring, child prodigies one and all. Once we’ve exhausted the tedious triumphs of Tarquin and Tiaamii, we can move onto the adventures of our pets – and don’t think I haven’t noticed that some of these creatures, including the occasional goldfish, are so smart that they put their names at the bottom of Christmas cards. Incredible!
There’s nothing new about the custom of contact at Christmas. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, inventor and author who went on to develop the Victoria & Albert Museum, was juggling his workload with his habit of writing Christmas letters to his many friends and relatives. And, while he was struggling, he hit upon the idea for the world’s first Christmas card. Cole commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to design it, and he came up with a sort of triptych. The two outer panels show people caring for society’s great unwashed, whilst the central panel is a sensitive depiction of a wealthy Victorian family enjoying their large Christmas feast. All Henry had to do was fill in the ‘to’ and ‘from’. The illustration also suggested that children were drinking alcohol, which went down like a cow pat in a stable with some, but it didn’t do our Henry – or his Christmas cards – any harm. 2,000 cards were produced, and sold for a shilling (5p) each. Henry Cole had assisted Rowland Hill introduce the penny post in 1840; you see, Christmas cards and the post office have been in cahoots from the off.
Many Victorians cottoned onto this labour-saving idea and Christmas cards steadily gained popularity – though apparently not dramatically and it seems the first Christmas card was not introduced to the United States until 1875. From the 1920s to the present day, Christmas cards have been big business all over the western, Christian, world – and sometimes beyond.
It is fun to look at the different designs over the years. Nativity scenes (unsurprisingly), robins and snow seem to predominate. Some are nostalgic; some humorous. These days, almost anything goes – particularly with the advent (Ho! Ho! Ho!) of computer-generated graphics. We’ve mentioned ‘corporate’ cards, but not ‘official’ cards sent by monarchs, presidents, prime ministers and even some pretentious acquaintances. They have their place; and I certainly wouldn’t mind being on Her Majesty’s Christmas card list. It’s easy to criticise the practice, but dropping a few lines to those we genuinely care about can’t be anything but good, can it? Yes, we should all stay in touch more throughout the year; but doing so once, at a special time, is far better than not being in touch at all. And I still think a card has the edge over a quick message on Facebook or Twitter. I have a couple of cards my father sent from North Africa to my mother during World War Two and can only imagine what receiving these must have meant – and probably still does in similar circumstances.
So – off you go – write your cards if you haven’t done ‘em yet. Those greetings card execs need to eat.