It’s my favorite time of the year, when I open the mailbox and I’m almost guaranteed to receive something other than a bill or a flyer for stucco repair.
What a delight (and relief) it is to pull out a cascade of glitter-laden felicitations, round robins filled with annual highlights and family photo cards marking the astonishing growth of young children in a calendar year.
In the absence of gatherings and travel during 2020, cards have filled a void.
In addition to sentiments on paper, I’ve received a substantial uptick in emailed greetings using online services such as Jacquie Lawson, which include animated scenes of idyllic winter amusements in the English countryside with a personal note at the end.
In a year of minimal social contact, I have found it grounding to reconnect through any kind of mail — snail or electronic. This past week, I also experienced boosts of morale over pre-Christmas phone calls to near and dears filled with the buzz and anticipation of the holidays.
We’ve been very fortunate during this season of giving in that some of our cards are accompanied by a gift, and we have many a friend and relative to thank for their generosity.
There are two types or correspondence over the holidays: the wishes sent for pleasure and the thank-you notes sent for task. While both require some effort, the latter is often less desirous, feeling obligatory and possibly shameful if not followed through. While sending a holiday card with short notes, or sometimes just a name, is common, thank-you notes have to be personalized.
As some of you sit back this Sunday with a newly gifted book, eating cookies baked by a neighbor, I offer a gentle nudge by revisiting the art of the thank-you note.
Firstly, it’s never too late to express gratitude. As an etiquette consultant, I tell clients that one week is the norm, but I think everyone deserves a hall pass over the holidays and especially so during the longest (insert expletive here) year of our lives.
The important thing is to not leave anyone hanging. In a worst-case scenario of a monthslong slip-up, reach out anyway to say how much you are savoring the flavorful tea you received.
To make dropping a letter in the mail effortless and more appealing, I recommend having all your props on hand. Keeping your stationery inventory (even extra birthday and sympathy cards) topped up, with postage and up-to-date addresses ready, makes the act feel less like a chore. One tip I have is to update your contact list the minute you receive a card or gift by making note of the return address.
Find a system for recording gifts that works for you. Use the notes app on your smartphone, write down all the holiday’s gifts on a legal pad or keep a running notebook of the year in presents. Keeping track of who gave what makes note writing much easier to begin.
“Thank you” is expressed in many ways. The handwritten note is the gold standard and most thoughtful gesture. The etiquette authoritarians and publishers of Debrett’s say “people will appreciate the fact that, in our busy, digital age, you’ve taken the time to sit down and write a letter.”
It shows effort. The writer took the time to select the stationery, put pen to paper, choosing their words carefully and posted it for the recipient to delightfully discover in their mailbox. It’s a visual expression of gratitude.
Online stationer Tiny Prints suggests customers “use handwriting. This will give your cards a personal touch and show that you care enough to take a few minutes to give each card some attention.”
For those with illegible handwriting, a handicap or accustomed to email, I suggest typing and printing out your note and adhering it to the inside of a card in which you handwrite the recipient’s name and sign it.
For those writing on behalf of their young children, have them dictate the sentiments with your guidance adding their own artwork or stickers.
Thank-you notes are four sentences or more but never less. Think of them as conversations on paper. Flesh out the note by talking about how the gift is meaningful to you. Instead of starting with, “Thank you for the sweater,” try “On this chilly day, your beautiful hand-knit sweater is keeping me warm and cozy” or “I would have chosen this radiant red sweater myself. It was made for me. What a good eye you have.”
If you received multiple gifts from one party, then mention them all and be descriptive about at least two. Gift certificates and money require a detailed thank you about when and how you plan to use or used them. For example “The gift certificate to the bookstore will be put to good use. I recently started reading the Harry Potter series and can’t wait to get the next one.”
Tangible gifts aren’t the only presents to thank people for. Hosted gatherings, vacation stays or donations made in your name require a thank you.
Of course, there is the matter of setting the time aside to write the notes. Christmas has passed, yet I don’t seem to be finding extra hours in the day.
Try scheduling an appointment with yourself by writing it in your calendar. Take yourself to a quiet place in your home or keep the stationery on your nightstand and write a note before bed. Aim for one to three per sitting to avoid burnout.
The key is setting aside some reasonable amount of time, or your note will sound and look rushed, like an obligation to get out of the way. View the note writing as a time for reflection, almost like a diary entry, that allows you to truly reflect back on the holiday and express “You’re in my thoughts” during a time when many are feeling isolated and cut off from ritual and connection.
Not only will your recipient feel appreciated, which is the ultimate goal, but you’ll also feel the gratitude more deeply. In the words of Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing. I love having written.”
If letter writing simply isn’t possible, then reach for the phone. Some people prefer the live interaction, so bear in mind that your audience may dictate the method of expressing thanks. A call connecting two parties together through the sound of a human voice is warm, engaging and lasting. The gift giver will appreciate hearing your tone.
Tone is not expressed as successfully through electronic messages like email and text. And anyone can dash off a message while standing in line at the grocery store. Not much effort is made, and even the most articulate writer’s content can be watered down as a result. Alas, a thank you is a thank you, but I challenge you to set your bar high(er).
Call me old-fashioned. I’m a sucker for stationery and stamps, Emily Post and the post office. After decades on keyboards, my penmanship looks like a 6-year-old’s. But I’ll always scribble out “Dear Laura” and “With gratitude, Bizia” because what’s in a name does matter.
It shows intent and adds meaning to your content. Whatever the occasion, make a resolution to express yourself in your own hand this year.
Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at email@example.com or 505-988-2070.