“2020: The year the pants stopped fitting,” reads a 2020 holiday card from the small Cincinnati-based brand Colette Paperie. Its founder Keli Spanier has always favored tongue-in-cheek seasonal greetings, but this year required a whole new level of snark. One card, featuring a prickly cactus, says, “Yup. It’s been a rough one. Hello, 2021!” Another muses: “Tis’ the season for joy and gratitude. Maybe some Xanax. “I don’t know how well a jolly card will sell this year,” says Spanier, who established her business in 2008.
Holiday cards typically exist in a Pleasantville-esque place where spirits are high, the mood is festive, family members love each other, the world is at peace, and glitter isn’t ruining the environment. But this year, with COVID-19, social uprising against police brutality, and a stressful campaign, many artists and stationery brands are embracing the holiday season’s biggest enemy: reality.
The tone of the 2020 holiday card is less generic cheer, more sarcasm and hard truths. “The national mood really affects what people want to say,” says Mariam Naficy, CEO of Minted, an online marketplace for stationery and home goods, that lets customers design custom cards and offers ready-made options. “When we started Minted 13 years ago, things were much more traditional,” Naficy says. “But after the last elections in 2016, the tone of cards started to change.” This year, she says, people want to be sensitive to pain and grief, and reference the fact they miss their friends and family members. There’s also a sense of relief the year is finally over, best illustrated by a “Peace out, 2020!” card.
There’s a few COVID-19-themed cards: one features a Bingo board full of Zoom phrases (“You’re on mute”), and another says, “It’s fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine.” For those users who upload family photos to use on custom cards, Naficy says she’s noticed customers have been choosing increasingly casual images, not the polished, matching outfit professional family portraits of years past. “The styling is less put together,” Naficy says. “Instead of lining up and being shot by a professional photographer, a family might be barefoot or in bed.”
Smaller online stores and independent designers are also leaning into the tough year we’ve all had. “We were a little more in-the-moment curating our holiday cards this year compared to years past,” says Nathan Walton, the owner of Salutations, an online stationery store based in Oakland, CA. The holiday cards Walton lined up range from moody to pandemic humor. There’s a simple ‘“Fuck 2020. Happy New Year” card, sans exclamation point, by Seattle-based Dahlia Press. Cards with jokes about social distancing—one by Rhode Island-based Modern Printed Matter shows two penguins on distant slabs of ice, and reads, “Happy Holidays from a distance.” And those that hint at the possibility that, for some, not seeing family during the holidays is actually a relief.
Walton has also noticed a significant increase in holiday cards addressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. “About a third of our indie designers are catering to this need,” he says, “and, thankfully there is a need—it is no longer a niche.” One example is a monochrome card with white and Black hands and the saying, “I stand with you. I will fight for you.”
In Atlanta, Dr. Dionne Mahaffey, the founder of Culture Greetings, an online greeting card store, has been addressing the need for diverse cards since 2018. Tired of not seeing Black vocabulary and imagery in the stationary aisle, she launched a line of cards featuring Black history, Black pop-culture references, and people of color in their designs. There is a friendship card inspired by The Color Purple, one that references a popular Tyler Perry movie, and one that simply features an elderly Black couple hugging under a Christmas tree.
A few months before the holidays, Mahaffey added a social justice category, featuring cards with the names of victims of police brutality front and center and those with calls for unity. “Why not have at least a portion of holiday cards to remind us that we should all champion causes that help all people?” Mahaffey says. “It’s very much in the holiday spirit.”
Perhaps holiday cards will never be the same again after this hellfire of a year. Ali O’Grady, the founder of Thoughtful Human, started selling greeting cards tackling family disfunction, addiction, abortion, and plenty of other topics no one wants to talk about, back in 2017. “Our sentiments are intended to feel raw, vulnerable, human,” she says. “From me to you, not Hallmark to you.” For this year’s season, Thoughtful Human is selling cards that acknowledge doubt, uncertainty, and mediocrity. “Life doesn’t always make sense,” reads one; another cautiously suggests, “It can’t be this painful forever. That’s something, right?”
“While it can be fun and uplifting to receive a holiday card, pretending things are okay can also be really painful,” O’Grady says. “In most cases, we can’t fix someone’s circumstances, but simply acknowledging someone’s pain or struggle can have a really big impact.” This year, holiday cards finally stopped pretending and started getting real.
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