It's in the cards

'Tis the season. Time to contact business associates, distant relations and old friends with whom you no longer have anything in common. In short, time to pay a courtesy call on people that you hope to get something from or that you have no time for the rest of the year.

Most people will send a greeting card. Prepackaged, ineloquent, trite, they carry a message over which you write "Dear So-and-so" and sign with your regards, warmest wishes, or in extreme cases, love.

To send a card can redeem a relationship. Not to send one can doom it: "What, he couldn't even send a card?" It is a quick way to say that you were thinking of people, even though the actual time spent thinking of them involved writing their name on an envelope and checking them off a list.

That cards are a fraud is one thing. That the country's 1,500 greeting card publishers have managed to brainwash us into thinking they're not is another. It's not just a business, it's an industry. Last year, Americans bought 2.65 billion Christmas cards, 11 million Hanukkah cards and 10 million New Year's cards, according to the Greeting Card Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C. The average family received 28 cards and the post office sold 4.6 billion holiday stamps.

Some people find cards deeply moving. They line them up on fireplace mantlels like flags representing all their friendships.

"Thanks for the card," says a woman I know, wiping an eye. "It's lovely. Just lovely."

Lovely? But maybe that's just part of the formula. It's what she's supposed to say. After all, you should acknowledge when someone sends you something, and "lovely" sounds like you really mean it. But the wiping of the eye? Surely she realizes it wasn't written by the sender, that it was bought, that some doofus in a cubicle set it down and the printer arranged the lines to look like poetic verse. Lovely? Sure — if she owns shares in Hallmark.

Greeting card companies have made us think their cards are the only acceptable form of written holiday communication, thereby creating a social convention. Try actually writing your own thoughts on plain stationery and people will assume you were too cheap to buy a card.

You could buy a blank card. But if you have bad handwriting, as I do, blank cards are a problem. They don't fit into printers unless you can expertly reset your software, and even then you risk breaking a different social convention against typed personal notes. The only exception to the rule against printed messages is — you guessed it — with greeting cards.

It's a gesture, people will say. It's harmless. Maybe so, but cards intimidate people. They make them afraid to put down their own thoughts because as ridiculous as cards are, they are ready-made, prettily presented, and offer a back door when you don't know what to say. We live in a society of graphomaniacs, where everyone wants to be published, but when it comes to a simple note, the mind's faucet won't turn.

But, hey, So-and-so isn't discriminating. She said the last one was lovely. Why strain to think when you can get out for three bucks and a stamp? Then again, since you don't really care about the people you're sending cards to, why take the time to write?

Some people have caught on. They've found a cheap, quick, self-indulgent alternative: The family newsletter. These are reports recapping and assessing the year, and generally include a wealth of details that illustrate a year that was so humdrum — or so it sounds — that it could only possibly be interesting, or perhaps deeply depressing, to the person who wrote it.

Some people personalize their newsletters; the computer inserts a name instead of "Dear Friends." Of course, the word "personalize" indicates that they are in fact impersonal, and you only have to read a few lines to realize you're just one of many recipients. What gives it away is that everyone is written about in the third person. It is a feat of modern technology that it is now possible to send junk mail to people you know.

The really leading-edge people have discovered electronic greeting cards. For me, there is something really ironic about them. Although an electronic greeting would seem to be the epitome of an impersonal gesture, electronic cards are actually more fun and creative, allowing the sender to type his own message, then adding multimedia effects, such as talking or dancing animated figures. I like them, though I am still trying to figure out how to dangle a computer from my mantel.

Other people send postcards with photos of their children. Often I've never met the adorable little creatures, but they are cute. Photos are kind to children, unlike adults, and even the ones who aren't cute in the flesh somehow pull it off in pictures.

But what do you do with the postcards once you've glanced at them? I have trouble just throwing them away. It's not just disrespectful; it's like wishing something bad on them, like a voodoo curse. So they wind up stuck to the fridge door, which begins to look like a UNICEF poster, then they migrate into a pile, and then one day, they're just gone. Either the dark side of my subconscious — or perhaps my wife — takes care of the little tykes, and I feel relieved.

This time of year, greeting cards have a certain personality. As suits the end of the year, they're for old relationships. Five weeks later comes Valentine's Day, and the cards turn from green and red to cream and rose, from fake cheer to fake romance. Then comes Mother's Day, and Father's Day, births, birthdays, illnesses, deaths ... and the wheel of the Hallmark year goes on.

Enough of this emotional plagiarism! Tell 'em how you really feel, from the heart, bad grammar and all, and if they can't take it, by golly — send 'em a card!

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