Posted by: alexhickey | December 18, 2022

Christmas Cards ©

The image of Santa Claus carrying a sack overflowing with wrapped presents has been on Christmas Cards for generations. He wears a red suit and carries a sack which is almost always green. As a young child in St. Jacques, I did not see a department store Santa or any red-suited character parading around my space. My Santa was the one depicted on a greeting card; a smiling, red-cheeked, white-haired man whose face filled the entire front of the card. Every year in December, as the cards piled higher, there he would be with that engaging smile and twinkling eye.

Strangely enough, he arrived in a sack himself. There was no door-to-door mail delivery in our community. Everyone went to the post office and stood in line to have the postmaster pass them their mail through a wicket. When December rolled around, the volume of mail arriving on the mail boat increased dramatically. Thick, grey, canvas bags with a drawstring at the top, and a padlock for security, bulged in comparison to other months.

Inside those bags were social networking devices – Christmas Cards. It was through them that we maintained yearly contact with relatives and friends. Oh yes, some folks wrote letters back and forth. However, the Christmas card was a collective communication tool. It said so on the outside of the envelope, with two words in the address line “… and family.” That meant everyone in our house. Each card with unfamiliar names, was examined thoroughly and an explanation was given, such as “Oh, that’s your great aunt and uncle on your grandmother’s side. They live on Patrick Street in St. John’s.” Some cards had lengthy, hand-written notes inside the cover informing us of who had died since last December, who was in hospital in July, the names of new babies, where summer vacation was spent or the names of visitors they had hosted during the year. At one level, it seems trivial, yet, it was critical information for it was often the only piece of communication for a whole year. It kept us in contact.

The “list” of those to whom cards were mailed wasn’t a list in itself. It was a combination of memory and whatever cards had survived from the previous year. Thus, cards were somewhat sacred, rarely destroyed or re-purposed until they exceeded a one-year life span. If one wasn’t received from a regular sender, it was noted. Speculation ensued. Was it a case of last year’s card being sent to the wrong address, did their card get lost in the mail, had they decided not to send cards this year, or, most dramatically, did they die? The latter had to be ruled out through inquiries of relatives by correspondence.

The exchange of cards was social networking, entertainment, obligation, family history and genealogical research. I first heard the names of distant cousins and other relatives through these cards, some of whom I would never meet, especially those of my grandparent’s generation. They were impromptu lessons in family history where I learned the names of extended family, where they fit in the family tree, as well as stories of things they’d done and places they’d been, including where they now lived and worked. Many of these names and relationships have stayed with me even though the cards stopped coming from them years ago.

In addition to the Santa Claus image, there were images of decorated Christmas trees, poinsettia leaves, holly berries against green boughs, snowmen, church bell towers, carolers, reindeer, and sometimes a simple, colourful, Seasons Greeting or Happy Holidays. 

Remembering those cards got me curious about the origin of the tradition of exchanging cards at Christmas. The first documented Christmas card was sent through a mail service in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole England introduced a postal service in 1840. Christmas letters, sent by courier, were exchanged before that. That meant hand-writing a response to every letter received. Cole had a card designed and availed of cheap postage rates to send copies to his friends. The practice spread across the world from there.

Select cards from close family members, or those having a striking picture, were given a place nestled among the branches on our tree. Others were placed throughout the living room, perched on the mantelpiece or end tables. Though neighbours occasionally strung cards on a line in their kitchen, this was not a practice in our house.

Residents noted the time on their clocks when the mail boat arrived, calculating how long it would take to have the mail sorted. Minutes before the post office door swung open, the line-up started. More than once, an anxious customer would check the door to see if it had been unlocked and had gone unnoticed.

Postmasters and Postmistresses were blessed with extreme patience. Over the years, there were many who worked in that capacity in St. Jacques. The first was George Snelgrove from 1877 to 1886. His wife, Julia, assumed the role upon his death and held the position until 1899 when she retired. Patrick McEvoy then stepped into the role for two years. He was followed by Bertha Young when Patrick became a Telegraph Operator. Bertha, or ‘Aunt Buppie’, served as postmistress for most of her adult life. When she retired, the role was filled again by Patrick McEvoy. After his death, his daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie) McEvoy filled the role. She was, in turn, succeeded by Blanche Fiander. Annie Lawrence had the distinction of being the last postmistress in St. Jacques before the postal services were centralized to English Harbour West and the St. Jacques office closed. How many Christmas Cards passed through their hands over the years, and how much joy ensued?

Despite the stereotypes, the hype, and the crass commercialism, Christmas has retained some things that are still magical. One of these is when I pull a card from its envelope, look at its cover, and then open it to read the hand-written name beneath the verse. That sharing of one’s signature speaks volumes.

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Responses

  1. Merry Christmas to you and your family also the best of the new year


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