Reaching Out to People Still Matters

The science of Christmas cards. By Karen Fingerman, Ph.D.

Posted Dec 20, 2016

In 1999, I published a study regarding older and younger adults’ reactions to holiday cards. In the olden days, at the end of the 20th century, people used to send one another greetings in December, in cards that read, “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy holidays,” or even “Season’s Greetings.” We would purchase these cards at a store since we didn’t have Amazon, and we would hand write a personal note to each individual on our list, risking writer’s cramp and paper cuts. Then, we would put a stamp on each envelope and walk uphill through the snow to mail the card to our friend or relative. (Seriously, I lived in Pennsylvania, and the mailbox was at the top of the hill).

People sent cards to friends they hadn’t seen in years or to relatives they dreaded visiting.  It seemed like particularly the older generation enjoyed holiday cards. This old-fashioned social behavior raised two research questions: 1) What did people get out of receiving these cards? and 2) Did people of different ages react the same way to those cards? 

A graduate student and I set out to answer these questions by asking people of different ages to complete a general questionnaire regarding their health, well-being, and beliefs about family and holiday cards. We also asked them to complete a survey for each card they received and to provide the card or a photocopy of the card. We coded the content of the cards (and the notes in the cards) for whether the content was emotional and meaningful, referred to a shared past, seemed like an effort to maintain or build the relationship, or was simply a holiday greeting. 

As we expected, older people were more likely to find the notes they received meaningful or to view the holiday card as a tie to a personal past, “I was moved that she thought to write me,” or “I always feel happy when I hear from him, we have known each other for decades.”

Young people were slightly more likely to want to build a relationship with the person who wrote to them. But there was also a difference in the types of cards and notes that older and younger people received. Friends and relatives sent warm, sentimental notes to older adults, but pictures of reindeer drinking cappuccino to younger adults.

In fact, older adults felt more socially embedded, that is more connected to other people, based on the number of cards they received. Older adults benefited from receiving cards at the holiday season, even if they didn’t see those friends or relatives throughout the year. 

Of course, that was back 20 years ago. So what are the implications for holiday cards in the modern world? Simply put, reaching out to people matters.

We can’t say whether a listserv email or a generic photocopied letter can lift spirits the way that handwritten notes did in the twentieth century. But people still like connections to friends and family- particularly at a hectic time like the holiday season.  So reach out via Twitter, Instagram, text, emoji or email. Personally, I’m old school. I still let people know that I remember them, that they have meaning in my life, and that we retain a connection over time and place the way I always have. I’ve gotten lazier and photocopy my holiday letter- but I sign each card, put stamps on envelopes and march uphill to the mailbox. 

Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., is a professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.