Time to get real with Christmas cards

by
20 December 2013

The habit of sending Christmas cards is threatened by the rise of e-cards and high postal costs. Churches and charities are fighting back. Pat Ashworth reports

Tidings of comfort and joy: modern Traidcraft card

Tidings of comfort and joy: modern Traidcraft card

WHY do we hang on to last year's Christmas cards - and even those from previous years - long after we have extracted the new addresses, or any other vital bits of information they contain? The question is prompted by the bulging carrier bag on my study shelf, and I reflect that the answer has something to do with both sentiment and beauty.

A Christmas card is a lovely thing to receive. I get a shiver of pleasure from Driving Cows Home in the Snow and a blast of nostalgia from Full Steam Ahead with its wintry and lamplit Oxenhope Station. I smile at the 1908 poster of Dick Whittington, and marvel at the table of the Great Dining Room at Chatsworth, laid for Christmas. My soul is stirred by the beautifully gilded Adoration of the Kings triptych in Truro Cathedral, and the radiance of Edward Burne-Jones's angels.

But the prophets of doom predict that Christmas cards will die out in an age of social networking, when we are constantly in touch with all the people we care about, and when, with no expense incurred, we can send an instant greeting with as many bells and whistles as we choose.

The growing habit led the Bishop of Hertford, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, to plead last month on Traidcraft's website: "If you 'like' someone, post a real card to their wall this Christmas."

He is a self-acknowledged lover of, and frequent user of, social media, but reflects: "It can be a bit impersonal and frankly sometimes a bit cold. It's important to remember that human connection and reaching out to one another is a basic human need. That's why I think that at Christmas nowadays something has been lost by the trend to send no cards, or e-cards, or a group email."

Advertisement

  

THE head of supporter de­vel­op­ment at Traidcraft, Paul Oliver, described Christmas cards as an important income stream, vital to supporting the consortium of charities it works with: SCIAF, CAFOD, and Chris­tian Aid. It has given the con­psortium more than £500,000 in the past five years from the sale of cards and products, and from top-up donations. The com­pany was also able to reinvest remaining profits to further its work in fighting poverty through trade.

"I think people are finding the high cost of postage a real barrier to sending Christmas cards, while using technology can be a cold and impersonal way to send festive greetings," he said. "That's why we're encouraging people to write cards and hand-deliver them to family and friends. It's not just about the card itself, but the one-to-one pastoral connection."

CAFOD said that revenue from Christmas cards for the consortium had probably gone down by about 25 per cent. "Demand has definitely gone down over recent years, both as a result of e-cards, the decline in the tradition of card-sending, and more competition in the charity-card market," the charity's spokes­man, Damian McBride, said.

"Our more popular seasonal offering is our World Gifts scheme, and that's where we tend to put our emphasis. Income from that source has remained healthy over recent years, and it's also been an import­ant means by which people have come into contact with our work for the first time."

 

THE decline is widely thought to have set in as a result of the credit crunch of 2008, when sales of Christmas cards dropped to £266 million from the £272 million of 2005. Greetings-card publishers acknowledge a downward trend. The managing director of Wood­man­­sterne, Paul Woodmansterne, says: "There has been a consistent reduction in businesses sending out Christmas cards to their clients and trading partners over the last decade. It is clear that with so much day-to-day communication by email; the effort required to send out real mail, and the infrastructure to support it now so slimmed down; added to the postal expense, just means 'It isn't worth it.'

"So, if businesses no longer feel obliged towards their clients, it is hardly surprising that we at home think twice about feeling obliged to give or send Christmas cards to our colleagues and acquaintances. And once that sense of obligation drops, so does significant volume."

But where volume is down, value is up. In common with many pub­lishers, Mr Woodmansterne has noted a resurgence in the purchase of single cards at Christmas - cards, he says, that people "take time to choose, thinking carefully about each recipient. It appears that, for our nearest and dearest, we really do believe it matters to give a tangible token of our thoughts and feelings towards them at Christ­mas time.

"Surely it's a heartening de­­velop­ment when a nation acts more out of genuine care and concern rather than on auto­­matic pilot out of embarrass­ment, or obligation."

 

THE price of postage stamps has more than doubled in a decade. An unprecedented rise last year, in which the cost of a second-class stamp went up from 36p to 50p, and a first-class from 46p to 60p, is blamed by many for a decline in Christmas post.

The now privatised Royal Mail defended the rise at the time, arguing that UK stamp prices were among the best value in the EU. But, as the greeting-card in­­dustry points out, no other country has such a tradition of card-sending or card-display in the home. The sending and receiving of cards is re­­cognised as an important part of British cul­ture.

Royal Mail could not give figures for the volume of cards delivered at Christmas. Its own online survey of 2000 adults last year, com­missioned from OnePoll, found that 80 per cent of those questioned would prefer a traditional card to any electronic festive wishes sent on Facebook or through other social-media channels.

The average person in 2012 expected to send 19 cards - a 27-per-cent in­­crease on the previous year - while 25 per cent of those polled intended to make more of an effort to send Christmas cards; 85 per cent planned to display them around their home.

 

THE greetings-card industry is di­­rectly and in­­di­­rectly res­ponsible for the jobs of 100,000 people in the UK. There are 800 pub­lishers, most of them small busi­nesses with fewer than five em­­ployees; and, in York­shire and Lan­­­ca­­shire in par­ticu­­lar, the greetings-card industry has re­­placed many of the heavy manu­facturing companies as a significant employer.

But the most important figure is probably the £50 million that, charities estimate, is raised for good causes through the sale of charity Christmas cards. A rapid survey of the 110 old cards in my carrier bag proves a good snapshot: 83 of those cards were in aid of charities.

Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) topped the list numerically; but also represented were the Woodland Trust, Barnardo's, Macmillan, the Leprosy Mission, NSPCC, the Musicians Benevolent Fund, Help the Hospices, York Against Cancer, Rainbows Hospice, Framework, UNICEF, RNLI, Oxfam, Traidcraft, Christian Aid, CAFOD, the Invictus Trust, St Gemma's Hospice, Child­line, Help for Heroes, RSPCA, Aid to the Church in Need, the Thomas Hardy Society, Phoenix Inter­national, Missions to Seamen, Tear­fund, FareShare, Scripture Union, Mothers' Union, Trinity Hospice, Home-Start family sup­port, Sue Ryder, YMCA, St George's School, the MS Society, Alzheimer's, British Red Cross, St Leonard's church organ restoration fund, Treetops Hospice, and Jubilee International. Fifty of my cards were religious or pseudo-religious, and 60 secular.

Advertisement

I am interested to discover that the first commercial Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843, depicted a family enjoying a festive drink together. Religious cards came some years later - something that feeds interestingly into the perennial debate on religious versus secular.

 

THE most recent extensive survey, by the Daily Mail, in 2011, looked at the ranges sold by the four biggest super­markets. It found that tradi­tional nativity scenes appeared on only 0.5 per cent of all single cards available, but that multipacks fared better. In ASDA, 13 per cent of multipacks had a Christian theme; in Tesco, 20 per cent; in Sainsbury's, 23 per cent; and in Morrisons, 11 per cent.

Not only is the sending of cards of massive benefit to the charity: my list gives me clues to what friends and family are involved in; where their heart lies; sometimes, what is happening in their lives. A spokes­woman for the first of my chart-toppers, the BHF, said that sales of their cards were usually in excess of £2 million.

"Christmas cards are extremely important to raise vital money to fund life-saving research," she said. "They are also a crucial way of spreading the word about the BHF's fight for every heart beat. However, we have noticed a drop in sales for the past two years since the rise in postage prices, and an increase in the popularity of e-cards."

Cancer Research UK also con­firmed the value of the Christ­mas market. "Our own Christmas cards, available in-store and on our website, bring in over £3 million a year in income," a spokeswoman said. "We think it's a stable market, and haven't seen any decline in sales. One hundred per cent of the profits go towards the charity's pioneering research, to bring for­ward the day when all cancers are cured."

Barnardo's, too, had a good Christmas in 2012. "We had a six-per-cent increase, year-on-year, in terms of gross profit generated from the sale of Christmas paper-pro­­ducts," the charity reported, "and they are still an important area of income. . . Our sales do not appear to be affected by the use of e-cards."

 

CHURCHES promote the sending of cards, and host their own, and others', charity-card sales. But I reflect on the practice of my own church over the past decade: we have been encouraged not to send cards to fellow members of the congregation, but to send one card to all, and to donate to our local homelessness charity the money that we would have spent on individual cards and postage. There is both gain and loss in this for the industry, and for the charities.

Around the big charities flock the thousands of smaller ones, such as the food-redistri­bution charity FairShare, which works in partner­ship with the big retailers, and receives significant donations from the sale of Christ­mas cards in its stores.

The charities have been quick to harness the e-card market, and many of them are promoting their own e-card generators this year for both personal and company cards, inviting a donation, or, in the case of personalised corporate cards with the company logo, requiring a fixed amount. "It couldn't be easier," is the refrain, with the emphasis on convenience and environmental friendliness.

So much rides on Christ­­­­mas for the charities' share of the outlay. Polls put the predicted total spending by UK households in 2013 at £22.3 billion, and individual-spending figures re­­ported to be £599 on presents, £180 on food and drink, and £43 on cards, decorations, and Christmas trees.

I stuff the cards back in the carrier bag, and think how I might sort them one day, and maybe even throw a few away. But then again, perhaps not.

 

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)