Like so many other cultural traditions, holiday cards are a bastion of the Victorian era. One of the greatest joys (and, for some, biggest hassles) of the season is sending and receiving these greetings. Whether you make handmade cards, write a family newsletter, spend hours sifting through images to create that perfect photo card, or just scribble them out, a lot of our collective time, thought, effort, and money goes into the process. In fact, more than two billion holiday cards are mailed every year in the United States alone. And for some us, it may be the only correspondence we have with certain people during the year. To help you put your best foot – or shall we say pen – forward, we’ve put together this handy grammar and etiquette guide. So let’s dot those Is and cross those Ts, people – we’re going to win the holidays this year.
1. Lose the apostrophe
Perhaps the most common grammar mistake on holiday cards (and the bane of editors everywhere) is the use of apostrophes. Apostrophes indicate possession, and under no circumstances should one ever be used in signing or addressing cards. A simple “s” to create the plural suffices. For example, Smith becomes Smiths (never Smith’s). If a name ends in an “s” or a “z” you would use “es” to pluralize it. For example, Jones becomes Joneses. If for some reason you’re really stuck on how to pluralize a family name, write out like this: The Fernandez Family.
2. Spelling counts
Not sure how your college roommate’s husband spells his first name? Find out. No one likes seeing their name spelled incorrectly, and it actually really ticks some people off. Likewise with last names. Does your colleague’s wife hyphenate her maiden and married names? Make a note and keep it in your address book or a holiday file. You only have to ask once, and getting it right is worth the small amount of effort it takes.
3. Review your list
Holiday card lists can get out of control, and it’s up to you where you cap your numbers, or if you want to take someone off your list. But review names and addresses before writing out or labeling envelopes. For starters, you want to make sure your cards get to people. But even more importantly, you want to be empathetic to any sensitive changes in a person’s life. Did a neighbor’s husband die? Surely she’ll love getting a card from you, but an envelope addressed to both her and the deceased isn’t just an etiquette flub, it’s an insensitive mistake that could be really hurtful. Same goes for divorces and other major life events.
4. Addressing the Envelopes
We turned to local stationery and social etiquette guru Judy Carroll of Papers for confirmation on the best way to address holiday cards. Trained by legendary stationery manufacturer Crane & Co., Judy follows their formal guide. To be traditional and formal, she suggests that cards be addressed to either “Mr. & Mrs. William Smith and Family” or, if that feels too old school, “The Smith Family.” There’s also nothing wrong with printing the names of both adults, for example, “Jane and Rich Smith and Family” or “Jane Jones and Rich Smith and Family,” should they have different last names. (You can leave off “Family,” of course, if a couple doesn’t have children.) However, if the family’s children are 18 years or older and still living under their parents’ roof (or are away at college), their full names should each be listed on a separate line. (That is, Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s adult children would be written out as “John Smith” and “Julie Smith.”) The oldest child would be listed closest to the top, the next oldest next, and so on. Any adult child who has moved out of the family home should receive her own card at her own address, should you choose to send one.
5. When in doubt, write it out
“When in doubt, write it out,” says Judy. That goes for states, street names, and extensions (e.g., avenue, boulevard, lane), and numbers. She also recommends avoiding any symbols such as the number sign or using the word “unit.” Instead, write out “Apartment 16” or “No. 16” or “Suite 16.” This is particular, sure, but style guidelines are there to make your life easier, not harder.
6. Signing off
There are a few different ways to sign your holiday cards, and, especially if you have your cards printed, it’s worth the effort to make sure your “signature” is correct. Option one is to sign your card “The Smith Family” or “The Smiths” and, if you wish, list the name of each member of the family below. Option two is to list out all of the members of the family with the last name at the end (e.g., Sally, William, Elizabeth, and Lucy Smith). If there are no children, the signature should be “Sally and William Smith.” In all cases, the wife’s name is always listed first, followed by the husband, and then the children in order of age from oldest to youngest. For cards that are printed with your name on it, many people will also strike through the printed name and add a personal signature; it’s a way to emphasize that you care enough about the card’s recipient to add a personal touch.
7. Return addresses
While return addresses are typically placed on the back flap of an envelope for social occasions, Carroll notes that the postal service does prefer it in the upper left corner on the front of the envelope. You may do as you wish, but we will add this: Anything you can do to ease the tribulations of postal service workers at this time of year does not go unappreciated.
8. Are address labels ok?
Sending holiday cards can be a time-consuming process. If streamlining the process by using printed mailing labels makes you a happier camper, go for it. If not doing so means that you’ll have a stack of cards still sitting on your desk come January, then by all means use the labels instead of addressing them by hand.
9. Make an effort
Sending a photo card? It doesn’t matter if it’s from a trendy printer or CVS. The photo you choose doesn’t have to be taken by a professional or show off Pinterest-worthy styling, but it should at least be in focus and nicely cropped. Your cards don’t have to be overly formal – using humor is perfectly appropriate – but they should meet a baseline level of decorum, so no nudity (exception: babies!) or freaky stuff, please.
10. Be sincere
Many of our friends have have begun to send New Year’s cards or Valentine’s Day cards, when life is less hectic; others send e-cards. All of these are just as joyful to receive (though the e-cards are harder to display). If the holidays are just too chaotic for you and not sending cards at all helps keep you sane, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some have stopped the card-sending cycle altogether, or take a year off on occasion, for ecological, economical, or sanity-saving reasons, and we don’t love them any less for it. There are lots of ways to keep in touch; whatever way you choose, be thoughtful and sincere. Ultimately, that’s what season’s greetings are meant to be about.
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