News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

December 1, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Holiday season makes going to the mailbox fun again

Ants decided to set up a colony in our family’s mailbox last summer.

Their choice was mystifying. The arch-shaped postal receptacle contained no food. Maybe they saw it as a shelter or some sort of entomological nightclub. Their invasion was disturbing, yet fun in an unusual way. The ants made opening the mailbox door an adventure again. We’d spray bug killer, and they’d disappear for a while. A few days later, we’d pull the door and find the ants were back, swarming the envelopes inside like a scene from “The Mummy.”

These days, trips to the mailbox lack the sense of anticipation baby boomer kids felt while awaiting the delivery of teeth-blackening chewing gum, ordered from the back pages of a comic book. Instead, the daily assortment of mail typically consists of bills, credit-card solicitations and ad fliers. Handwritten letters and postcards are being replaced by Facebook and Twitter updates, e-cards, text messages and Skype chats.

Thus, nobody runs to the mailbox anymore, unless they get some strange thrill from being identified as “current resident.”

But all of that changes during the holidays. The ants disappear in the cold, and — more importantly — Christmas cards brighten up the mail.

Some contain a short greeting, handwritten or professionally printed, or merely a signature below a Hallmark poem. Others include a personal letter, recapping the sender’s past year. A few are “corporate cards,” like those sent by company underlings in the name of Clark Griswold’s cranky boss in “Christmas Vacation.” The most entertaining Christmas cards, though, feature a family photo.

Those pictures — and all of the drama required to arrange them — often earn a spot in the American household museum, the refrigerator door. E-cards can’t match that.

“It’s a fleeting moment when it’s electronic, and it’s a keepsake when it’s a hard-copy,” said Mic Orman, who’s processed and snapped photos for 32 years in Terre Haute.

The value of such a real, ink-and-paper, original Christmas card seems to be re-emerging in 2011 after a decline last year. Orman said customers at his photo shop, Mic’s Pics on Wabash Avenue, are bringing in more photos to adorn holiday greeting cards this season than in 2010, at least at this point. That trend follows a national survey, too.

Sixty-three percent of people surveyed by online marketing firms Zoomerang and Vistaprint said they intend to mail hard-copy Christmas and holiday cards. Of those folks, 66 percent plan to send more physical cards than they did last year, according to the poll. Seventy-four percent figure they won’t use e-cards this time. Likewise, the U.S. Postal Service estimates it will deliver 16.5 billion cards, letters and packages during the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year’s-Day period, an increase from 15.8 billion last year.

That return to tradition may be more sentimental than financial.

“I’m not sure that the economy’s any better,” Orman said, “but so many people missed [sending out cards] last year, they’re going back to it this year.”

Yes, Virginia, there is a recession. And, yes, old-school cards, photo processing and stamps cost more than an email or a Facebook posting. But tangible items, especially in this here-today-gone-tomorrow culture, are worth a couple extra bucks. (It’s not a fortune. Half of the people surveyed by Zoomerang estimated they’d spend $25 or less on their Christmas greetings.)

The extra time involved pays off, too. Including a photo with a Christmas card takes time. And patience. Kids may not all want to smile at the same time. The family may not be in the mood for Sunday-best clothes and trying to get the family dog to pose. A little advice from Orman: Don’t be so formal. Try something usual. Let kids react naturally. “Be creative,” Orman said of choosing the right atmosphere. “Go to your favorite family spot. It’s all about the expressions.”

Your favorite vacation picture from last summer might work, especially in the dead of winter when sunshine and heat seem like Aesop’s fables. “It’s a great way to say, ‘This is us on the beach in July — merry Christmas,’” Orman said.

A cool, reversed twist on the “Christmas in July” concept. The card’s recipients might be envious. Then again, an ocean-side Christmas card from a cousin or a friend sure beats a mailbox full of utility bills or ants.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com

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