Some are seeing fewer Christmas cards than usual


It began to dawn on Kimberly Forsyth last week: She wasn't getting as many Christmas cards as she used to.

"Usually by now my mailbox is full of them," said Forsyth, 42, a business consultant who was at the main Baltimore post office recently, sending Christmas packages. "By now I usually have 40 to 50 cards. This year I have about 10."

Of course, Forsyth wasn't sending as many as usual, either - about 50 this year, compared with 150 in previous years. She writes a personal note in each of her cards and said she just doesn't have the time this year.

The Greeting Card Association says just as many holiday cards will be sent this season as in the past few years - about 1.9 billion, for an average of 26 per household - but that is still down from the 2.2 billion that circulated about 10 years ago.

Even if card-sending has remained at the same level in recent years, in post offices and card shops around Baltimore people said they've been cutting back on their holiday greetings for reasons of time and money.

Some said it's the cost of postage, now up to 37 cents for a stamp and increasing to 39 cents in January. Others said they're just so busy that they might not get around to signing, sealing and delivering their usual batch before time runs out. And a few are sending holiday e-cards over the Internet to acquaintances who don't quite rate an actual card.

(One notable exception is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who sent out 40,000 cards, about the same as last year and reportedly more than any other governor in the country.)

"The stamps are so high; it's getting expensive," said Haywood Fields Jr., 68, who lives in Howard Park in Northwest Baltimore. He said he's sending about 40 cards this year, fewer than in the past. He gave a stack of them to his mailman, Jerome Ragsdale, on a recent morning.

Ragsdale, who has 423 stops on his daily route, said he hasn't noticed any decline in holiday cards this year. But he said the numbers aren't nearly what they were when he started the route in 1985.

"When I first started, everybody was sending Christmas cards," said Ragsdale, 54, as he sorted mail in the back of his truck Monday. "Then it tailed off. But now it's picking up a little."

The country's major card companies - Hallmark and American Greetings - enable customers to send e-cards from their Web sites. Hallmark's e-cards are free; American Greetings charges an annual fee of $13.99 to send an unlimited number of cards.

The American Greetings' Web site has 2.3 million registered users, who will send 10 million holiday cards through the site this month. But the company doesn't expect those e-cards to cut into sales of real cards.

"It's something that's still complementary to paper cards," said Sally Babcock, senior vice president of American Greetings Interactive, noting that e-cards often go to those who wouldn't get actual cards. The company's site also enables customers to design cards and print them for mailing, or American Greetings will print and send the cards for you.

"We print it on quality card stock paper, and you give us the address information and we'll send it out," Babcock said. And what about signing it? "Somebody can upload a signature." Scan it into your computer, and American Greetings will print it on the card.

But some take Christmas cards a little more personally than that.

Marjorie Dorsey, who is on Ragsdale's postal route in Howard Park, said cards are an important tool for staying in touch with people. She sent 150 cards this year, about as many as usual.

"It's a thing I like to do because I stay in touch with my friends in the distance and my friends I don't see," said Dorsey, 79, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court secretary. "It's good to say, `Peace be with you' and `love.'"

Etiquette expert Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, also prefers real cards. He's wary of e-cards for practical reasons - they could get blocked by spam filters - and he said they aren't as meaningful.

"The thing I hold in my hands has a sense of the personal to it that the other doesn't," Post said. He thought the American Greetings theory about sending e-cards to those who don't rate actual cards could be read as insulting.

"Does that mean if you get an e-card, you know you're a second-class citizen for that person?" Post said. But he wasn't about to criticize those who send e-cards. "There are many people who live their lives in the electronic age and do some very nice e-cards. It's a part of life. We're not going to tell people, `No, you can't do it.'"

Even some who don't send cards say they've noticed a drop-off this year. Kelly Hume, 38, a speech pathologist, says she hasn't sent cards in years because over the holidays she sees everyone she would send cards to.

For years, she had been waiting to fall off people's Christmas card lists, but she still got 20 to 30 cards every holiday season. This year, though, she has four so far.

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