Season's Greetings

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I imagine that people who send holiday cards send out a LOT of them, which must be a fairly time- and labor-intensive process. On the other end, the recipient typically gets a canned greeting and a hastily-scribbled signature.

To which I must ask, what's the point?

Spare me the clap-trap about "thinking of you" and "keeping in touch." I don't call sending out a generic card to everyone on your address list either of those things. People who take the time to write a meaningful personal note get partial exemptions, and there's a clear role for family newsletters and photo cards. But does this annual ritual constitute any kind of meaningful contact, or is it just a pro forma obligation people mark off their holiday checklists? Does the "thought" of sending something at all count more than the "thoughtlessness" of sending a Christmas-themed card to someone of a non-Christian faith?

I received two cards today. One was custom designed and contained a nice personal note of fairly little substance, yet sufficient to make me think fondly about the senders and want to drop them an equally hollow let's-continue-to-keep-in-touch-despite-having-nothing-really-to-say-to-each-other reply. The other was a generic winter holiday card with pagan/Christian associations from a far-away friend, with no personal comment at all. It was nice of the sender to take the time and expense to include me-- a little unexpected frisson in the mailbox-- but the generic nature of the card created conflict between sorrow at the lost opportunity for personal contact and pleasure at the regard implied by even being included on the sender's list.

I don't mean to be ungrateful for being thought of, but then that's the crux of the question-- is it, truly, the thought that counts? Does cranking up the holiday card assembly line constitute genuine thought? Who's season's really being celebrated, the sender's or the recipient's? Would just a 1-2 minute personal phone call rate higher on the warm fuzzy scale than a canned card? Do holiday cards really say, "Thinking of you!" or just "Going through the motions!"?

22 Comments

Touch´┐Ż.

I don't know whether I have committed the errors to which you refer in my card to you; in a sense it doesn't matter because you raise interesting and very general points and I know I have committed them in general in the cards I sent out, some more than others. In this particular case, I shall be unusually annoyed/disappointed if I committed the "inappropriate card design to festival celebrated" mismatch error (or, worse still, the "inappropriate handwritten message to festival celebrated" mismatch error!) because this was something I spent time and effort thinking about this year. Doesn't mean to say that I will have got it right in practice, though.

Would just a 1-2 minute personal phone call rate higher on the warm fuzzy scale than a canned card?

Is your phone number public? Most US people's numbers are public to the extent that a bit of judicious Googling (eg firstname lastname city) will often do the trick, but that's not to say that people genuinely welcome acquaintances phoning them up out of the blue. Given that you haven't mentioned your phone number on your blog, as I recall, and that you don't mention it in the issues of TGR I have, I would assume that either (a) I have not been paying attention [always very possible!] or (b) your phone number is not public information.

Very interesting questions about the future of the medium, though. Will the situation change when the usage of online journal expands - when the traditional annual "what I've been doing" circular letter is replaced by commonplace daily/weekly "what I've been doing" circular blog entries? Certainly cards I've particularly enjoyed receiving from other bloggers this year have made passing mention of experiences shared together or references to items I've mentioned.

Will the physical card be replaced by e-mail, or even by e-mailed graphical card designs? That's a call to make at an individual level, of course, but I can't see the card (especially when accompanied by an unusual envelope and stamp!) dying out in popularity quickly.

I haven't sent a real card to anyone in years. The only real cards I get now are for places I am actually going to be, where I will be seing the person and therefore want to hand them something - usually with a present of some sort.

For everyone else, there are e-cards. They are easy to personalize, they are free, and they get delivered on the date I want them delivered.

Of course, my recent experiment with a mass mailed e-card didn't work very well, although Pete didn't mention it. I found out how badly it worked because I was on the list to receive it. It was just a test, and now I know not to do it again :)

Chris: You are the above-mentioned far-away friend. Knowing you're a Zombie reader, I thought three times about posting my comment lest you recognize yourself and take offense. The fact that you even sent the card in the wake of other comments I've left for you elsewhere, however, suggested I needn't worry.

Your card was not egregiously Christian, but it did feature a wreath and a "fa la la la la", which is part of a Christmas carol. Most people who observe Christmas don't even notice such things-- which is of course why many of us who don't, do.

Regardless, it was a pleasant surprise to receive it from you, and would have been even more of one had it carried a brief personal comment with it across the Atlantic. Of course, I'm not the one writing, addressing, stuffing, sealing, and mailing a bunch of holiday cards, so it's boorish of me to pick nits.

Not that that's stopped me, apparently.

As for my phone number, it's easily found online via Yahoo's People Search so I guess it's public.

No offence taken; always good to hear other points of view. Thank you for your comments over the year; the fact that you've been thinking about me has only made me more inclined to think of you (and express this thought in my own, admittedly half-measure, way).

As discussed, I have been thinking about image suitability, though the "just because I've been thinking about it doesn't mean I'll get it right" point applies once more. I'll grant the wreath as being pagan; I also had the song in question as being pagan likewise, what with mentions of wreaths, yuletide and the yule log. Now I didn't sing through the entire song to myself to check that every single line might not cause offence before I sent the card, but please know that I wouldn't knowingly send you a card with a lyric from an overtly Christian song! :-) (To be fair, though, I did make the assumption that people wouldn't be offended by pagan celebrations and I don't know whether this is a fair one or not.)

Do I misunderstand your point? Is your point that, no matter if the card doesn't mention Christmas and if the card does try to sidestep the Christian trappings of the holiday (though it did mention "Christmas card" in the recycling info at the back/bottom of the card, with which I was not too impressed), if it's sent from someone who's celebrating Christmas, it makes it a Christmas card in spirit and so not so appropriate?

Unrelated point: put it down again to the whole "not paying attention" thing, but it's only been fairly recently that I learned you're Jewish - either when you mentioned it here a couple of times or when I saw the WWTBAM? footage. (Not that this would excuse me making any default assumption about your religion.) I have half a suspicion that I might have sent you a Christmas card in a previous year not knowing this - in which case, red face, sorry and whoops.

I don't think there is anything particularly pagan about the wreath or the song... Both are about celebrating "the season to be jolly" which is about Santa and or Christmas - Santa if you are under 10 :)

What pagan belief is being celebrated here? Perhaps there is something about these things that I don't know... I think it is more something like Pete said though - since the words Christmas, Santa, Jesus, etc... are not used, people assume that means that they are "generic" items.

I need to offer a dissenting opinion. I do feel that it is primarily the thought that counts. I also personally feel that there is something I appreciate more, in both the giving and receiving, of actual physical cards, rather than a call or e-mail.

Often the sentiment is simple, "Thinking of You." And in the hectic holiday season, I honestly do appreciate the time and warmth it takes to sit down and prepare these cards. Are they worth more than the few minutes of sentiment it took to sign and address them? Probably not, but that bond can be enough depending on your relationship. I know of several cases where old friends got together after fifteen or more years of having communication by nothing but the annual Christmas Card.

Only once was I really put-off by a card I received. That was due to the "Our family last year..." letter included. Please, only put politics into the letter if you ran for office yourself, I don't need a rehash of the Gore vs. Bush election in my Holiday mail. Otherwise, I even enjoy those mass copied letters some folks put into their cards. As far as I'm considered, a few more parents bragging about their kid's success in school wouldn't be a bad thing in our world.

Sorry for the ramble.

Brian

Yuletide and trees are all hugely pagan; Deck The Halls keeps banging on about yuletide, the yule log, fasting and so forth. (Yes, I had to look this all up!) Arguably it's really all about singing "fa la la la la la la la la", because producing different tones is just plain fun.

"Most people who observe Christmas don't even notice such things-- which is of course why many of us who don't, do."

this is a point that i have had much trouble explaining to christians. they don't seem to understand that wreaths, santa, decorated evergreens, etc. are associated with christianity for non christians. further, they don't seem aware that they assume people are christian.

Chris: As far as I can recall, this was the first [and after this flap, only? =)] card you've sent me. I'm not saying that any card sent at this time of year is de facto a Christmas card and therefore inappropriate to non-Christians. For starters, I can't speak for all non-Christians. But it depends on the sentiment of the card. "Season's greetings" SOUNDS generic, but it's not fooling anyone. The "season" in question is Christmas. The safest bet for a non-Christian card is one wishing the recipient a happy and healthy new year.

Incidentally, according to Merriam Webster, YULE's origin is pagan, but the term means "the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ : CHRISTMAS". And "noel" is a Christmas carol, while "Noel" is Christmas itself.

Dana: The societal assumption that everyone is Christian drives me up a wall. Even worse are governmental endorsements of God, as on our currency or in the Pledge of Allegiance. But that's a topic for another day.

I actually don't mind the words, "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" because they include New Years, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, and winter vacation holidays.

Dana: The societal assumption that everyone is Christian drives me up a wall. Even worse are governmental endorsements of God, as on our currency or in the Pledge of Allegiance. But that's a topic for another day.

Testify, Peter. What REALLY annoys me is when people start defending stuff like that (and the Ten Commandments in government buildings, etc.) as part of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, "Judeo-Christian" being code for "Christian, but we want to pretend to be inclusive." One of these days there will be enough Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/Sikh/pagan/other religion/atheist/agnostic people in the US that "Judeo-Christian" won't be a plausible excuse any more. I hope.

To get off the rant for a moment, I should note that the last time I got into a Christmas trappings=Christian discussion, it became apparent that US and UK standards on this are rather different. In the UK Christmas stuff is more secularized because the UK is so much more secular than the US - a much higher percentage of the US population goes to a Christian church (or any place of worship) than is the case in the UK population, and the US population consistently scores much higher on polls about religious belief than the UK population (or any Western European population, for that matter).


It's even harder dealing with the "assumption of Christianity" when you have kids, and strangers are CONSTANTLY coming up to them saying things like, "Are you ready for Christmas?", "What did you ask for Santa for?", etc.

The other day at the roller skating rink (where they were playing Christmas carols, of course), a guy dressed up in a Santa outfit came up to us, offering to do a photo shoot with my kids. When I told him I wasn't interested, and we were Jewish, he still didn't get it! He just said, "That's okay, I don't mind. We're just taking photos with Santa, there's nothing religious about it."

And what bugs me the most is that if my kids tell another kid that Santa isn't real (not that this has happened), I'm supposed to feel bad about it because we've "ruined the magic of Christmas" for some child. Millions of parents have convinced themselves that lying to their children is a good thing, and the rest of us are supposed to participate in the sham. This irritates me to no end.

Some friendly guidelines for the Christians in the audience who don't know the difference between Christian symbols and secular symbols of winter:

Secular: Snowflakes, snowmen, sledding, fireplaces.

Christian: Wreaths, Santa, Christmas trees, ornaments, reindeer, nativity scenes, carols

Jewish: Menorahs, dreydls, latkes

Of course, plastering Hannukah symbols all over the place alongside the Christmas symbols wouldn't really solve anything. We need to broaden our country's message of "freedom of religion" to include the possibility of "freedom from religion".

Well, I've learned a lot from this thread. Thank you all for keeping the tone good-natured and instructive, despite touching on matters of considerable sensitivity.

I am perplexed by the mention of wreaths and Christmas trees as Christian; I believed them strongly to be pagan rather than Christian and have been acting accordingly this year. In all seriousness, which side of the line would angels and bells fall upon? (Apart from the "twee" side in the latter case.)

Dan said In the UK Christmas stuff is more secularized because the UK is so much more secular than the US and I want to absolutely reinforce that; non-believers routinely send Christmas cards to non-believers without any thought of religious message therein, and I've been swapping Christmas cards (in both directions!) for years with a gamer who invited me to his Jewish wedding this year. Ahem.

You might be interested to know the religious breakdown of the UK as collected in the government Census of April 2001 (source):

Christian 71.6%
Muslim 2.7%
Hindu 1%
Sikh 0.6%
Jewish 0.5%
Buddhist 0.3%
Other religion 0.3%
No religion 15.5%
Chose not to answer (non-compulsory question) 7.3%

Mind you, this is likely to be of only limited accuracy, not least because 0.7% of the population reported their religion as Jedi. (I presume they were included in "No religion" in that breakdown above.) For what it's worth, I answered "non-specific monotheist" and identify as wishy-washy agnostic.

The last figure I saw for religious service attendance was that about a million people attend a Church of England service in an average week, which is about 7% of those identifying as CoE rather than Roman Catholic, Methodist or other forms of Christianity. I'm afraid I have no similar figure for other religions.

To conclude: I hadn't realised what a big issue this is and my attempts to deal with it were evidently insufficient. Nevertheless, neither my ignorance nor my cultural upbringing excuse me for making the mistake and accordingly I apologise.

"I am perplexed by the mention of wreaths and Christmas trees as Christian; I believed them strongly to be pagan rather than Christian and have been acting accordingly this year. In all seriousness, which side of the line would angels and bells fall upon?"

chris: they started out pagan but are so intertwined with christmas that i'm not sure how you (the general you) could still consider them such. i find that this idea is very hard for christians to accept. occassionally i am gived a wreath and the sender doesn't understand why i don't want it even though they know i'm not christian.

i consider angels almost 100% christian. their function, attire, actions, and placement all say christian to me. as for bells, the liberty bell isn't, but if it's got a sprig of holly on it then it is.

The last figure I saw for religious service attendance was that about a million people attend a Church of England service in an average week, which is about 7% of those identifying as CoE rather than Roman Catholic, Methodist or other forms of Christianity.

That, rather than the percentage of the population identifying themselves as Christian, is the really significant figure. I don't know exactly what the regular church-attendance figures are for self-identified Christians in the US, but I know the numbers for the major denominations are a lot higher than 7%. In both countries there are people who will answer surveys with a religious identification but who don't really practice the religion and who may not have much if any religious belief, either. My impression is that there are a lot more such people in the UK than in the US.

As for Christmas trappings:


  • Christmas tree - the pagan origins of this are old enough not to be too relevant. I mean, Easter traditions are partly pagan as well (I hear), and you don't see people arguing that Easter is not Christian.

  • Wreaths - in some countries this is probably non-religious, I don't know for sure (and of course there are European countries that are so homogeneous in religion that it's hard to tell). In the US, Christian (no one else uses them that I know of).

  • Angels - Christian. There are angels in Jewish and Muslim tradition, but they're not viewed the same way (the Jewish angel you see referred to most often is the Angel of Death). Modern American angel iconography is definitely Christian where it isn't newagey.

  • Bells - I suppose technically jingle bells are secular and church-type bells are Christian, but I'm willing to give all bells a pass because I'm feeling generous today.

Regarding Cards. I've always assumed that they were (just barely) tasteful ways of showing off the kids. Then again, I'm not known for my social graces...By all means include a letter. I thought my college room-mate (one of them) had an extra daughter until the clarifying letter indicated the 6 year old was male.

Regarding Merry Christmas. As an atheist of jewish upbringing, I've pretty much decided to let it go. I figure pushing for Hannukah (and secular stuff) is pretty much a waste. Most people say Merry Christmas out of lazyness. (How many phrases has englished shortened? Do you really think that in this one case people will lengthen a phrase?) However, some religious conservatives get really upset at "Happy Holidays" because it denies the the centrality of Christ to December. Whether they get "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" depends on how annoying they've been. [The Jehovah's Witnesses were out the other day, which reminded me of this].

Finally, in the case of good dear friends, they
get nothing. It's a Bankler tradition (that Jacqui sometimes bucks when I'm not looking). So,
if you don't get anything in your mailbox tomorrow, think of me. I sent it!

I am Chinese, Catholic, and grew up in Hong Kong, although I've lived in Boston for 14 years now. Over in Hong Kong, most everybody celebrates Christmas, say "Merry Christmas," send Christmas cards, have celebratory Christmas meals, etc. -- just like the UK that Dan and Chris described -- except that in Hong Kong Christians are a minority. No one thought the Christmas celebrations were a big deal. I was quite surprised when I came to America and found that people are very sensitive, about political correctness in general (esp. in the late 80s and early 90s when I was in college), and this issue in particular. I hope I am not sounding too argumentative -- I dont mean to argue at all and I fully recognize everyone's right to feel as they like -- but I am genuinely curious because of my different background: Are non-Christians in USA more sensitive because Christians are a majority, and a vocal one, and non-Christians feel threatened, in terms of civil liberties, government endorsement, etc? Even if so, there is a huge difference between government endorsement of Christianity and a friend sending a card with a wreath to another friend, and IMHO, they are not on the same slippery slope, and tolerance for the latter would not lead to the former. BTW for the record, I also vehemently oppose government endorsement of _my_ religion.

Another question I had while reading this thread: I can understand the argument that trees and wreaths, while pagan in origin, have now become Christian symbols to non-Christians, due to exclusive use by Christians in the past decades and centuries. The fact took me by surprise, but the logic is the same as how meanings of words in English change over centuries, and at any moment in any population, the meaning of a word is defined by usage, not by word origin nor edict. I am glad to learn how people feel differently about trees and wreaths. But by the same logic, wouldnt Santa Claus be Christian in origin, but a non-Christian symbol nowadays, because it's completely commercialized? Or would it still be Christian, by the fact that only Christians use this symbol (I am not sure that's true), and despite the other fact that it has lost all religious significance?

Re-reading what I wrote above, I may still come across as argumentative, and for that, my sincere apologies. I am really asking this out of curiosity and unfamiliarity. Indeed I wouldnt dare to ask if the very cordial tone of this thread so far didnt give me hope I wouldnt be flamed on. :-) Anyway, happy new year to everyone!

antkam - Santa is still mostly Christian because when Santa is invoked so is Christmas. Presents and big beards and guys asking for money in shopping malls come to mind as well, but Santa is still the guy that drops off gifts on Christmas eve. It's certainly getting more and more commercial though, and someday it may change... but I tend to doubt it. It brings to mind the swastika - a very old symbol with lots of different meanings, but I kind of doubt people will ever forget the WWII meaning when they see one - at least, not any time in the next century or two.

As for why people in U.S. are more senstive to this stuff... well, that's hard to answer, since I was brought up here and am not finding it easy to look at things from the outside. A few guesses though - as a country where religious freedom is supposed to be such a big deal I think a lot of people get upset when ANY kind of religious anything is pushed on them, whether it is from government or friends. Over the last few decades the whole PC movement has really made people more aware of the little things, too, and I think some of them have gone a little overboard and become sensitive to things that they shouldn't be. And as a final guess, I would say that people in the U.S. feel that they have a right to say whatever they feel like, so when someone says something to them that goes against their beliefs they simply speak out, instead of just ignoring it or taking it in stride, or even realizing that it was meant in a good way and so could safely be left alone. We like to hear ourselves talk too much sometimes, I think.

I handled the conversation about Santa Claus with my 4 year old daughter by stating that Santa Claus doesn't visit us because we're Jewish. We get our presents from friends and family.

I'm really enjoying this thread... especially how slyly Larry very innocently just equated Santa Claus to Nazis :)

For what it's worth--I don't take offence at recieving a Christian card from anyone. I generally understand the good will inferred. However, I always have a dilemma when sending one as I am an atheist who has an idea that everything is fundamentally based in chaos. I send cards and letters once a year (at the end of the year) to update family and distant friends as to what's going on in my life. I have an added complication that my husband IS pagan. And I don't mean he just doesn't go to church. He would consider himself Wiccan, which is a modern paganism. (Trust me--bunnies and eggs at Easter, trees and yule logs at Christmas, and half a dozen other Christianized things have their origens in various pagan religions. The only pagan holiday that they haven't successfully taken over is Halloween--and even that has become All Saint's Eve...)

But back to cards: I also know people of several other minor faiths. How can I express my feelings (and beliefs) while at least making an attempt to recognize thier beliefs? Most often I fall back on a theme of peace, which is ultimately what I would like for them all year-round. It is hard to find creative cards each year that don't sport shots of the earth or flying doves, but I think it's worthwhile and appreciated.

I also keep all the cards I recive--both religious and not. I enjoy looking at them and feeling the warm and thoughfullness that I feel they were sent with.

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