It was only October, and an unseasonably hot and sunny day to boot, but Rovonne Staten’s front steps in Grapevine, Texas, brimmed with Christmas-y props. For her family’s holiday-card photo shoot, there were poinsettias and wreaths, tinsel and tartan, an oversized ornament emblazoned with the letter “S,” a plate of cookies for Santa — and a sign reminding him to please stay outside.
“Santa can’t come in the house because of Covid,” joked Ms. Staten, 41, a project engineer, adding, “I want people to have a bright spot by looking at our picture and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s cute; that’s nice — you know, it looks like things might be OK.’”
At the end of a year marked by distance and disconnection, Ms. Staten will send holiday cards for the first time ever. And she is not alone. Paperless Post, an online card and invitation company, found in a recent survey that 60 percent of users plan on sending holiday cards this year (compared with the 38 percent of respondents who sent them last year). The craft site Etsy has had a 23 percent increase in searches for holiday cards in the last three months, compared with last year. Of the 2,000 Americans surveyed in September by Minted.com, a home-décor and stationery company, nearly three-quarters agreed that holiday cards have more sentimental value this year than in previous years.
Understand the realities of the situation.
Many cards of holidays past paired sun-dappled vacation collages or magazine-worthy images of grinning children with pleasant messages about joy. But after a year marked more by worry and stress than merriness, and with the pandemic and its economic toll raging on, some card senders, stationery companies and portrait photographers are taking another approach: out with the honeyed sentiments, in with masks and other depictions of the realities of this era.
“We should send holiday cards as a way to connect with people,” said Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert. “And I believe that we can reference the pandemic in this medium, because everyone has been impacted in some way and it’s important to be upfront about it.”
For Ms. Staten, that meant purchasing red masks (she hot-glued white fuzzy Santa trim to her husband’s) and enlisting a local photographer to capture her family of five from 10 feet away. Even that style of portraiture is a cultural outcrop of the pandemic: The photographer, Rachna Agrawal, first photographed the Statens for the Front Steps Project, for which photographers around the world captured socially distanced images of families as a way to raise funds for local nonprofits and small businesses.
Shrutti Garg, a Brooklyn-based photographer who also participated in the Front Steps Project this spring, said she has several clients planning to repurpose those photos, however casual they may be, for holiday cards.
“You can imagine they’re not the best photos,” Ms. Garg said. “But there’s a lot of families that are still going to use them, because it is what it is: This year, we were all in our pajamas at home.”
Be mindful of your tone.
One Front Steps client, Mai Nguyen-Huu, rehired Ms. Garg to shoot another set of outdoor family portraits for holiday cards. She and her husband have two daughters, about 4 months old and almost 2.
“I think everyone needs to laugh,” said Ms. Nguyen-Huu, 39, who works in the fashion industry and lives in Brooklyn. “But we’ll probably be careful who we send it out to — we probably won’t send it to people who have been affected in a way where this would offend them.”
As a workaround, Ms. Nguyen-Huu will make a few different cards by mixing and matching photos and copy. In some images, Ms. Nyugen-Huu and her husband wear masks. Some show an ice bucket filled with Champagne and Purell; others, a gift basket brimming with Clorox wipes and toilet paper. She’s toying with a few messages, including “Celebrating (at home) with the finest bottles of alcohol” and a more sincere one wishing recipients “a happy and safe holiday season.” She is also considering a “super-safe version” with a traditional portrait and greeting.
Mariam Naficy, Minted’s founder and chief executive, said the question of tone has added weight for the independent artists whose card designs are sold on the site.
“With so many people passing away, we knew there was a line that we could not cross,” she said. “It’s a very subtle thing. We didn’t want to be inappropriate because we don’t want people to take this lightly.”
Lizzie Post, an etiquette author and the co-president of the Emily Post Institute, thinks that’s a question senders should think about, too.
“I think if you’re making light of the pandemic, you risk insulting those who have families and loved ones who’ve passed away,” Ms. Post said. “But if you’re wearing masks or showing social distancing as a sincere support for those acts, I’m all behind you 100 percent, and I think etiquette would be behind you too.”
That will be Ms. Staten’s approach. Although she hasn’t ordered the cards from Costco yet, she has drafted the following greeting: “We’ve been diligently wearing our masks and staying socially distant this year, but we miss you so much! Hope this card finds you well and we can exchange big hugs soon!”
Consider new messaging.
Ms. Naficy has seen card designs and messaging rise and fall with external events; for example, the word “peace” became popular after the 2016 presidential election. Now, she said, other trends are emerging.
“On the more serious side, ‘hope’ is a very popular word, as is ‘gratitude,’” said Ms. Naficy. “Then on the funny side, there are a lot of people who are clearly interested in the humorous take: Our family has been through a lot, I’m sure yours has, too.”
Even seemingly timeless messages (say, “Best Wishes For the New Year”) have distinctly 2020 vibes (say, when paired by the Minted artist Gwen Bedat with an illustration of “CTRL+N,” a keyboard shortcut used to open a new browser window or document).
Holiday messages on cards available on Etsy range from “Adios 2020” to references to hand-washing. One by the designer Tina Seamonster shows a dumpster fire emblazoned with “2020,” along with two words above it: “We Survived.”
“We’re constantly seeing emerging inventory that reflect the zeitgeist, and this year’s holiday cards are no exception,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s trend expert.
All it took for Kristen Hope’s holiday card to materialize was a friend’s message on Twitter depicting the enormous disposable face mask adorning the facade of the Science Museum of Virginia. The museum is about 100 miles south of Ms. Hope’s home in Arlington, Va.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that would make a great Christmas card, especially because we didn’t really do much in terms of family vacations this year,” said Ms. Hope, 48, a stay-at-home mother of a 14-year-old and 12-year-old twins. “We were bored one Saturday, so we grabbed our selfie stick, jumped in the car, took a photo, got back in the car and drove home.”
A former research librarian who diligently keeps her address list up-to-date, Ms. Hope ordered cards from Minted (“Happy Holidays From Our Quaranteam To Yours”) and plans to send them around Thanksgiving. Her only regret? Leaving the backside blank.
“I should have put a little asterisk that said: ‘We didn’t go inside. We used a selfie stick. We had our masks with us,’” she said.
Like Ms. Hope, Elise Miller has always been a holiday-card devotee. She has traditionally tapped a photographer friend to shoot bright, elegantly composed family portraits.
By contrast, this year’s card, which she purchased through Minted, is a screenshot.
“We had been Zooming with our family so much,” said Ms. Miller, 52, who works at the Conference on World Affairs at The University of Colorado, Boulder. “And one day, I was looking at the screen and I thought, ‘You know what, we should just take a picture because this would be a great holiday card.’”
Four of five family members, including the Millers’ 16-year-old twins, beamed in from separate rooms of their home in Boulder. Their 20-year-old daughter, a junior at Boulder, joined from her off-campus apartment.
“The photo isn’t perfect, but neither was the year,” Ms. Hope said. “I’m trying to embrace the fact that it’s the holidays, and this year will be over. This year will be over! And maybe we’ll have the chance to start over.”