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Why do people buy cards? It's not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can't say what they feel or are afraid to.

Is the ceremony of the greeting card wholly shallow?

Why do people buy cards? It’s not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can’t say what they feel or are afraid to. And we provide the service that lets them off the hook.” So says Tom Hansen,the greeting card-hack in the movie 500 Days of Summer,as he tears apart the whole enterprise and quits his job.

Many people would agree that store-bought,mass-made greeting cards are sentimental,empty things,and electronic cards only compound the crime,by being free and involving even less effort.

They have their own little vocabulary,“You are special” and “what you mean to me”,tend to feature glistening roses and sunsets or teddy bears and cutesy fonts. They are a safe,mostly childish world,far away from the knotty,singular feelings that mark real relationships . As Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Variations on the Word Love: “This is a word we use to plug/ holes with. It’s the right size for those warm/ blanks in speech,for those red heart-/shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing/ like real hearts. Add lace/and you can sell it…”

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According to a Hallmark editor,greeting cards trade in “the universal specific”,where everyone thinks “this was made for me”. In fact,a company like Some E-Cards ( has been super-successful by mocking its own conventions — the tagline is “when you care enough to hit send”. They have snarky cards to undercut every occasion (“Jesus Christ,not Christmas again” “Just wanted to spread hope,peace,joy and other marketing buzzwords”).

And yet,greeting cards seem to go on,maybe because they can simultaneously appear off-hand and well-meaning. The annual holiday card is a way to remain loosely linked to people you sort of like,but might not be able to sustain a long conversation with — extended family,useful acquaintances. (There’s a lovely Carol Shields short story called Others about a couple who gets Christmas cards from another couple they fleetingly met while on holiday,and how,over the course of a 25-year marriage,the husband and wife begin to read deep hidden meanings in these short messages — investing them with their own fantasies and regrets.)

In some cultures,the annual Christmas family epistle is a chance to fill everyone in on the year that went by,a brief recap of the big events in each person’s life. It was in Victorian-era England that greeting cards became a holiday ritual (aided by the newly-founded Penny Post). They were kept and displayed in parlours,and like other objects like locks of babies’ hair,dried flowers from wedding bouquets,souvenirs and later,family photo albums,became intimate relics and conversation pieces. The historian John R Gillis,who has written of the ceremonies that came to compose family life in the West,says that it was precisely when middle-class families were disconnecting and drawing apart from each other that the “exchange of cards and photos and brief,highly ritualised visits came to be the favoured medium of family communication”. Family letters and cards became an exclusively female domain — women remembered birthdays and anniversaries,chronicled the deaths and weddings in the family,kept up a stream of small chatter.


Soon,with technical advances like colour lithography,most cards began to be store-bought. Joyce Hall,who founded Hallmark cards in 1910,in Kansas City,recognised how greeting cards were vitally about marketing feelings. During World War II,the card industry even wrangled exceptions from paper-rationing,because cards were shown to boost wartime morale. Studio cards,the funny,clever cousins of the solemn greeting card,nurtured some of the best illustrators and writers,and eventually became the “alternative” cards we now send.

People send greeting cards when they’re most insecure about what to say. The US card industry was flailing because of the arrival of free e-cards and because its soothing abstractions didn’t seem to apply any more to diverse occasions and sensibilities — as a 1999 Time magazine article put it,“for Generation X and Y,paper cards might as well be stone tablets”. And yet,they enjoyed a burst of renewed popularity after 9/11. People turned to the blurred phrases and pictures of “hope and cope” cards to express what they didn’t have words for.

On the whole,I’d say 500 Days of Summer has it wrong — greeting cards are not always a cop-out. You’d be in trouble if you can’t express intense feelings any other way,but they’re a great way to convey cordiality,good cheer,seasons’ greetings and the like — after all,lightly felt goodwill has its place in the world.

First published on: 25-12-2011 at 02:48:19 am
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