The Psychology of Christmas Cards

pile of greeting cards

It’s that time of year and I have started receiving Christmas cards in the mail again. Which naturally makes me wonder: why?

Why do we give out Christmas cards?

Do we send Christmas cards just because it is a tradition? Or do most people actually want to send out cards? What are the costs and benefits? What motivates people to do this? And when did this tradition start?

The history behind the tradition

One website says that Christmas cards were started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. He was trying to encourage people to use the new postal system. So did Christmas cards start just because someone was trying to increase their business (the postal system)?

Businesses definitely use Christmas cards to remind customers of their products and encourage more sales for the following year. Is this whole tradition a financial strategy?

Personality Type by Christmas Card

Additionally, can you decipher personality type by the Christmas cards people send out? Can you infer family values or family culture by the Christmas cards people send?

Some people send very traditional cards with their family picture and nothing more. Others send lengthy epistles about all the wonderful things their families have done that year. Some of these border on being quite boastful while others are meek and mild – probably accurately reflecting the writer’s personality type.

Others stretch the boundaries and come up with creative ways to present Christmas cards every year. My favorite from one of my more creative relatives is this card:

On the back, you are supposed to guess who all the Christmas villains are. See if you can name them!

I truly look forward to their cards every year.

Some families’ cards focus on Jesus Christ. These Christmas cards would suggest a family culture focused on Christianity and religiosity.

Some people don’t want to say “Merry Christmas” at all and would prefer “Happy Holidays” in order to be more inclusive. This would suggest a more open and liberal family culture and values.

What determines who is on your list?

How do you determine who is on your list of people to send cards to and who is not on the list? Do you send cards only to people that you like? Or do you send some cards out of obligation or fear of offending people?

What is most curious to me is all the people I get a card from that haven’t taken the time to talk to me all year long. What is the point of giving me a card with your family’s picture on it if you don’t even want to talk to me? Maybe it is more of an intention to talk to someone. Like they think: “I don’t see of talk to this person anymore, but I still like them and want to keep in touch through Christmas cards once a year.”

Grief Triggers

Something that I have learned the last few years is that Christmas cards can be powerful triggers to those who do not have a happy home life.

Consider the parents who have just had a death in the family, the couple who can’t have any kids, the single person longing to find someone to marry, and anyone else that doesn’t have the “ideal” family life that is so often pictured on those colorful Christmas cards. What do these people think when they get a dozen cards in the mail with all those happy faces on them? Does it remind them of how unhappy they are right now? Does it trigger grief and jealousy?

For me, as a mother of a severely disabled child, Christmas cards have definitely been very triggering at times. Sometimes I want to rip them up and throw them away. Other times I stare into their happy faces and think: “Ah yes, the perfect little family that I have always wanted and hoped that I would have.” Then I go cry for a few minutes.

In this way, Christmas cards are kind of like social media posts where people try to look their best and tell you about how awesome their lives are. Few Christmas cards say “We had a bad year. We fight a lot. We hate our families and have awful relationships. Merry Christmas!”

So Christmas cards can actually be quite a sensitive subject for some people and can trigger a lot of grief and sorrow.


For me, it has been fun to think about all the psychology that goes into sending and receiving Christmas cards. Some years I have enjoyed receiving cards and some years I have hated it. But this year, I feel like I am in a pretty healthy place. Some cards still trigger some grief for me, but I can appreciate the sentiment and try not to be too jealous of what I think other people have.

After thinking about all of these questions and receiving various Christmas cards and putting them on the back of my front door, I’ve decided that I like this tradition. I like seeing people’s families and hearing about their lives – even if they haven’t taken the time to visit or call me during the year. At least I get to hear from them once a year, right?

Now, I just need to find the time to send out my own Christmas cards. Due to my son’s severe disability and my natural inclination to question all traditions and things that I am “supposed” to do, I haven’t sent out any Christmas cards for the last 5 years.

But I think I may just do it next year…

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