If you think you are getting fewer holiday cards this year, don't worry. Chances are it has nothing to do with your popularity.
The practice of sending Christmas cards is fading — collateral damage from the digital age.
After experiencing slowing growth since 2005, Christmas card sales declined in 2009. The drop was slight, 0.4 percent, according to research firm Mintel International Group, but evidence is building that the next generation of correspondents is unlikely to carry on the tradition with the same devotion as their parents.
The rise of social networking, smart phones and iPads is changing the way friends and family stay in touch, diminishing the Christmas card's long-standing role as the annual social bulletin.
"People are up to date all the time on Facebook," said Kit Yarrow, a Golden Gate University professor who studies the 20- and 30-somethings of the Generation Y culture. "Gen Y-ers are notorious for not sending thank you notes and not RSVPing. I just think that method of communication is foreign to them. And that doesn't bode well for the future of holiday cards."
Americans sent more than 1.8 billion Christmas cards through the mail last year, according to greeting card industry statistics. That figure is expected to drop to 1.5 billion this holiday season. Facebook, for its part, passed the 500 million member milestone in July.
Erika Maschmeyer, 30, won't be sending holiday cards. She has mailed holiday cards only once in her life, in her early 20s, when she had time on her hands.
"There are so many other ways to keep in touch," Maschmeyer said. "I stay in touch with e-mail and Facebook. It's an easy way to quickly see what people are doing."
Although Christmas remains the holiday that sparks the most greeting card sales, fewer people send cards each year, according to Unity Marketing. The percentage of consumers buying greeting cards for Christmas fell from 77 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2007 and to 62 percent in 2009, according to the Stevens, Pa.-based market research firm's 2010 report on greeting cards and stationery.
The outlook is especially weak for teens and college students, who are used to communicating in ways that are more immediate, more efficient and more cost-effective, said Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing.
"Compared to these instant forms of communication, addressing a preprinted card and sending it via snail mail seems like an antiquated waste of time," Danziger said.
A British businessman is credited with creating the Christmas card in 1843 — as a way to save time. Too busy to write a personal holiday greeting, Henry Cole hired a well-known London artist to design a card he could send to all his acquaintances, according to a version of the story recounted by greeting card maker Hallmark Cards Inc. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, is said to have brought the Christmas card tradition to America in 1875, printing a card depicting Killarney roses and the words "Merry Christmas."
The recent decline doesn't mean Christmas cards can't make a comeback.
No data are yet available, but Danziger has gathered anecdotal evidence in recent weeks that suggest that consumers are feeling the need to connect outside the electronic world, for Christmas in particular.
"I don't know if it's going to pick up traction, but there may very well be people who have given up Christmas cards and who are returning," said Danziger. "I think it's just a backlash to the virtual world. You may have 600 friends on Facebook, but really only 30 of them mean anything to you."
American Greetings Corp. and Hallmark Cards — the two biggest greeting card publishers in the U.S. accounting for more than half of the market — are doing their best to grab consumers' attention with high-tech cards that light up, record music and connect to the Web.
"We see social networking as a tremendous opportunity," said Steve Laserson, a vice president at American Greetings. "The more people stay connected, the more likely they are to also correspond with a paper card."
American Greetings introduced a sing-along Christmas card this year — a traditional greeting card with a recording chip that allows the sender to sing along with background music for Jingle Bells and other songs. The company also sells a digital slide show card with a small LCD screen that displays as many as 50 photos. The card comes with a USB port so recipients can transfer the images to their computers.
Anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff is combining the virtual and physical world of holiday cards this year by posting a holiday card on his blog (thewildpigtailproject.com) and asking people to print and mail it.
The idea is to remind people that creating social connections takes time and work. The sender doesn't get an immediate response, as with a text message or Facebook post, but chances are the greeting will have a long-lasting effect, said Blinkoff, co-founder of Context Based Research Group in Baltimore.
The recession has taken the focus off material goods and made people hungry for social connection, he said.
"To an anthropologist, a little thing like a Christmas card is not a little thing. It's about something much bigger than a piece of paper," Blinkoff said. "Cards are disappearing, but the desire for what's behind them has never been bigger. This is not the year to not send a card. It's a year to create new ones."