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Isolated by pandemic, Americans are sending more Christmas and holiday cards to stay in touch

'Wish we were together' is the theme of the top-selling card this year, Hallmark Cards says
Image: A woman gazes in wonder as she opens a holiday card in a snowy city.
Cynthia Kittler / for NBC News

Ever since she was a child, Courtney Young loved signing and sending Christmas cards to family and friends. But as she got older and time became more precious, the number of cards she mailed each December dwindled. And last Christmas, Young said she mailed just 20 cards.

Then the pandemic hit.

“I expect to send out 150 to 200 cards this year, if not more,” Young, who is the head librarian at Colgate University in upstate New York, told NBC News. “I enjoy doing it. Actually, I’ve always enjoyed doing it. So I guess I am getting back to something that I used to do.”

She apparently has plenty of company.

“Our holiday sales are off to a strong start, further indicating the importance of meaningful connections in this unique year,” Lindsey Roy, chief marketing officer at Hallmark Cards, said in an email. “We’re seeing growth in our ornaments and gifts businesses so far, as well as early indicators that more people are buying and sending holiday cards this year.”

Their biggest selling card this season, she said, is a Christmas card that expresses a sentiment that millions of Americans cut off from the people they love can relate to, namely “wish we were together.”

“The cover says, ‘It would be so nice to wish you a Merry Christmas in person’,” Roy said. “And the inside reads, ‘But even though I can’t, just know that I’m thinking of you – now and all through the year’.”

Young said Hallmark is speaking her language.

“I feel that in the moment, it’s even more important to send something out to people, if only just to let them know that they are missed and appreciated,” she said. “I do tend to send out holiday cards, but this year I’ve been expanding it to people I work with, people I would run into at conferences, extending it beyond the usual group of people I send cards to.”

Young said even before the holidays, she surprised herself, as well as her friends, by sending actual birthday cards rather than simply calling or texting. She said it helped her ward off the feeling of isolation during the coronavirus crisis.

“It feels good to be able to do something good for other people, especially at this moment,” she said. “I think we need to be more purposeful about reaching out even as we are isolating. We don’t have these serendipitous moments when we can run into each other right now because of the pandemic.”

Emily Stern and Bob Bailey-Lemansky, who live in the Montclair, New Jersey area, have in seasons past sent holiday cards they designed themselves to friends and loved ones. But this year, the 75 or so cards they mail will have a design that Stern drew.

“This year has certainly been unusual, and we all hear about what a horror show 2020 has been,” Stern said in an email. “Our intention instead was to convey wishes of peace and hope for the holidays and year ahead, include winter and seasonal themes (as well as elements that reflect our year), and go the heartfelt route. At the same time, we felt it important to acknowledge the loss and impact caused by the pandemic.”

So, she drew a Picasso-inspired bird of peace and added the word “Hanukkah” in Hebrew, which she started studying this year. And with the help of Bailey-Lemansky, who is a part-time musician, she added the notes from the first line of the song “Richie and Ruben” by Fountains of Wayne.

Emily says the goal for her drawn holiday card was to emphasize heart, hope, and humanity which are very much alive, even though those messages haven't been the loudest ones voiced this year.Emily Stern

“Among other painful losses, losing Adam Schlesinger hit us especially hard,” Stern said, referring to the band’s bass player and chief songwriter who died of Covid-19 earlier this year. He was 52.

As for “Richie and Ruben,” Stern said, “It has special meaning for us because it’s one of ‘our’ songs.”

Megan Carolan is also mailing out custom holidays cards this year, or rather she’s mailing out Christmas cards customized with drawings of trucks by her 3-year-old son.

With the pandemic preventing her family from getting together for Christmas this year, New Jersey mom Megan Carolan is sending out cards this year and allowing her 3-year-old son to "customize" them.Courtesy Megan Carolan

“I got the idea to make the cards with my son after I unpacked my Christmas stuff and realized I had all these boxes of cards that I had barely used,” said Carolan, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and is expecting her second child in the spring. “It was partly an attempt at decluttering.”

Carolan said she has a big family and “all of us getting together this year is just not an option because of the pandemic.”

“My son is now old enough to be aware of what he is missing and decorating the cards is something we can do from home that still feels festive,” she said. “It’s also an activity that enables him to practice drawing and writing. So, in a way, it’s part of our virtual preschool. He gets to draw and color and personalize these cards. And who doesn’t want a customized Christmas card from a three-year-old?”

Carolan said they intend to mail out about 25 cards.

“I have been talking to some of the parents about how some of the old-school ways have come back because of the pandemic,” she said. “In a year when you have to celebrate Thanksgiving on Zoom, I think people appreciate getting an actual Christmas card. It’s a physical thing, a tangible thing.”