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By Shelley Murphy

It seems to me each year fewer families send Christmas or holiday cards—it’s 10 days into December and I’ve only received nine.

In 2004, the estimated number of cards received by American households dropped to 20, down from 29 in 1987. Despite the decline, Hallmark reports 1.5 billion Christmas cards are purchased and sent every year in the United States.

The very first Christmas card spread holiday cheer across England in 1843 and contained the familiar phrase, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You.”

A hand-drawn illustration included an image of a child drinking what appears to be red wine sparked controversy. Critics feared the card promoted drinking and would encourage drunkenness – a predication eventually proven at office holiday parties everywhere.

For many, Christmas cards offer a rare opportunity to correspond using pen and paper, instead of instant computerized messaging via email, Twitter or Facebook. I still mail handwritten Christmas cards, and I look forward to finding cards from friends and family stuffed in my mailbox.

Every year I send a photo card and I like receiving picture cards in return. Over the years, I’ve saved a huge stack of these cards; and, annually, as I dig through boxes of decorations, I look back over the pictorial record of childhood transformations.

Our first family photo card featured our boys standing side-by-side and that tradition continues today. Surprisingly, adding me and my husband to the card to document the onset of my wrinkles and his gray hair never really appealed to me.

Last year, we chose to include Santa in our holiday photo. Our boys sat with an overly eager Mr. Claus who kept adlibbing and adding an annoying thumbs-up or silly face to each pose; fortunately, Santa finally cooperated and we ended up with our favorite card to date.

It’s a sharp contrast to this year’s card. We couldn’t corral both boys in the same zip code long enough to snap a picture, so I sorted through old photos settling, for a shot my husband took on vacation in July.

Sadly, this year probably marks the end of our family photo card. In August our oldest son left for college and with our other son not far behind, the tradition seems destined to become another casualty on the road to college and adulthood.

As much as I enjoy holiday photo cards, my favorite cards arrive accompanied by a seasonal newsletter, or what’s commonly called the Family Christmas Letter. I find most family newsletters are like Christmas sweaters – tacky yet irresistible.

Newsletters usually follow a similar format starting with Yuletide greetings then detailing personal triumphs and tragedies peppered with health hazards, prestigious promotions, thrilling travel, or the zany antics of a pet or young child, closing with a pithy holiday wish for “Peace on Earth.”

Our stockings are hung by the chimney with care, but it won’t be Christmas until I read the one family newsletter I wait for all year. It comes from one of my father’s old fraternity brothers, but it’s written by his second wife and chronicles a year of minutiae about his kids, her kids and their grandkids. The newsletter is two-sided, single spaced and crammed with stories that make the cast from Jersey Shore seem sane.

The wife (and author) always shines brightly and unabashedly boasts about her booming real estate business and embellishes her accomplishments by adding lots of exclamation points (!!!). She spends the rest of the letter bemoaning about the family she’s stuck with, including her “good old” hapless husband and their flock of black sheep. It is obviously not the caliber of It’s a Wonderful Life, but to me it’s a Christmas classic.

Wishing you health and happiness in 2013 (and Peace on Earth).

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