Christmas cards or emails?


The world over, the mail must get through – image by Brazilian photographer Alexandre Fukugava

Last week I posted a handful of Christmas cards to New Zealand. The woman in the post office frowned and said I’d missed the deadline for international post.

But it’s only New Zealand, so they will probably get there,” she added, with a slow, small country town smile.

I’m not so confident. The record time taken for mail exchanged between my sister and I was 17 days in 2020. Blimey, I could have flown over and hand-delivered it, enjoying a two-week holiday at the same time.

Those of you with family members living abroad know of the annual dilemma. Is it Christmas cards in the post and/or calendars, an animated ecard or an email with a word document of the family’s highlights through the year?

The problem with the annual epistle is that some years are just crap. Nothing good happened and you didn’t go anywhere, right?

I have more or less faithfully kept up the tradition of sending cards in the mail, not expecting one in return, since moving to Australia in the mid-1970s (stamps then cost 10c).

When we were both working, we’d shop for Australian calendars and post them to relatives in New Zealand, Canada and the UK. We stopped doing this once the cost of postage became more than the cost of the calendars.

Last month, I had a reminder email from animated ecard producer Jacquie Lawson, who offers cards for all occasions. The reminder was that my $20 subscription was about to lapse. It was a shock to find I had sent only five ecards in 12 months. I must be old school after all.

I’m not renewing, but if you decide (on December 23, after counting the unsolicited cards on the tree and mantel piece), that you should reciprocate, it’s easy to sign up and deliver an impressive ecard.

The first Christmas card was issued in 1843 by UK civil servant, inventor and entrepreneur Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Cole was instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post. This system encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards. Struck by the idea of creating a greeting card of his own, Henry asked his friend, artist John Callcott Horsley, to illustrate it.

Horsley’s design depicts the Cole family raising a toast in a central, hand-coloured panel surrounded by a decorative trellis and black and white scenes depicting acts of giving.

Cole commissioned a printer to transfer the design onto cards, printing a thousand copies that could be personalised with a hand-written greeting. The issue (at a shilling each), was described as a commercial failure.

Cole would have been fascinated to see how his idea blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar business. The greetings card industry is in a spot of trouble now, as digital options make sending greetings cheaper and faster.

Marketing group released projections that showed global greetings card sales would drop 17% from $23 billion in 2020 to $20.9 billion in 2026. Reasons for the decline include the popularity of social media platforms and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

“Despite the challenges posed by the growing social media and e-cards, there still exists a niche consumer base for physical greeting cards,” a spokesman said.

“Giving and receiving these cards continues to matter to a set of consumers, albeit a shrinking one. For this niche group of consumers, a physical greeting card on special occasions means much more than a Facebook message or an e-card.”

Last year, the Australia Post network delivered around one million fewer letters every working day than prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

A spokesman told FOMM the network did not differentiate between Christmas mail and regular letters so could not produce meaningful statistics. But as a guide, the annual Santa Mail program last year received more than 118,000 letters bound for the North Pole!

Australia Post is one of Australia’s most successful companies, posting revenue of $8.3 billion for 2021 and pre-tax profit of $100.7 million.

“This is a strong result, with our domestic parcels business continuing to go from strength to strength, while we retained our position as a market leader with parcel and services revenue growth of 17.7%,” acting CEO Rodney Boys said in the 2021 annual report.

Revenue was driven by a record peak period, with more than 52 million parcels delivered in December alone. The organisation is continually finding new ways to take advantage of the growth in ecommerce (more than one million households now shop on-line each month). Australia Post has developed well beyond a simple service for mail delivery. The network supports banking and bill-paying services for major institutions.

My recent application to renew my Australian passport (at the post office), for example, cost $307.00 plus $27.95 for passport photos, taken by Australia Post.

(Ed: He has some spares if you’d like an autographed one).

The Australian Passport Office delivered my new passport by registered mail ($4.45) in just under four weeks so obviously the Passport Office/Australia Post collaboration is working well.

The strong growth in ecommerce and parcel home delivery has coincided with an ongoing decline in the volume of letters, however. Revenue dropped from $2.33 billion in 2017 to $1.77 billion in 2021.

As a trustee of a self managed super fund, I can vouch that all companies which issue shares promote electronic delivery of annual reports and other correspondence. All of the institutions and government agencies with which we have dealings also push hard to convert their clients to on-line interaction.

Despite my earlier observation about the time taken for mail to arrive in New Zealand, Australia Post boasts a 94% delivered on time record for letters and parcels. If the letter/parcel you are expecting is late, it is probably someone else’s fault.

There are 7,950 postal routes in Australia, some requiring a marathon effort to traverse. We should be grateful for the 10,000 ‘Posties’ who battle rain, hail, bushfire smoke, steaming hot days and aggressive dogs.

No laughing matter that, with Australia Post confirming that more than 1,000 posties have been attacked by household dogs in the past six months. Nibbler used to bark at the postie, or more accurately at the scooter as it whizzed past. I went out one day to introduce the dog, thinking it would make him less likely to bark and run along the fence. Our local postman said it was ‘traditional’ for dogs to bark at posties.

I hope this has inspired you to get out your address book and start writing in cards (buy a box of cards from a charity and do two good deeds in one).

A study by the University of Limerick concluded that the act of sending (and receiving) Christmas cards can help alleviate depression. Moreover, if someone who always sends you a card suddenly doesn’t, this can be a red flag.

“If you do not hear from someone who regularly sends you a Christmas card, it might be worth checking in with them to spread some Christmas cheer,” said Dr Jennifer McMahon, a lecturer in psychology at UL and study co-author.

You have seven days.

Postscript: I wrote an irony-laden Christmas song which has been described as ‘a bit dark’ by someone who saw a preview. Not suitable for children.

One Comment

  1. I regularly send and receive postcards here in Australia and overseas and my stats (only giving you the countries I sent the most to/received and NZ) for the last 2 years show; Sent to: AU – average 27 days, NZ – 34 days, Germany – 38 days, USA – 31 days. Receiving from those countries; AU – 9 days, NZ – 16 days, Germany – 32 days, USA – 33 days. My figures haven’t changed all that much since 2005. Aust Post are slow and charge an arm and a leg for international postage stamps $3.50 on a postcard.

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