The sociology of christmas cards

In this 1971 article from Trans-action (now published as SocietySheila K. Johnson reflects on the practice of sending and receiving christmas cards, arguing that it is an archetypical case of a phenomenon susceptible to sociological explanation:

Anyone who has ever composed a Christmas card list has pondered the inclusion and exclusion of names on the basis of a variety of fairly explicit considerations. Shall I send so-and-so a card this year, since he didn’t send me one last year? Or, I must send so-and-so a card this year, even though he probably won’t send me one, because I want to be remembered by him. Like the decisions we make about whom to vote for, we like to think of these choices as purely individual, rational matters. Nevertheless, sociologists have demonstrated that, regardless of how and why we choose a candidate, voting behavior can be analyzed as a function of one’s socioeconomic status, mobility aspirations, ethnicity and religious affiliation. Similarly, it seems likely that the patterns in which people send and receive Christmas cards can also be explained in terms of certain social characteristics, especially their social status and mobility aspirations.

Reflecting upon her own christmas cards, Johnson observes a clear pattern where those cards that are reliably reciprocated tend to be sent to those with whom she and her husband were on equal social footing with (family members, professional friends) whereas those that weren’t reciprocated had an aspirational dimension to them, as was the case with cards the couple received but did not themselves reciprocate:

People with regard to whom we were, in sociological terms, “upwardly mobile,” such as professional acquaintances who might someday prove useful or important or social acquaintances whom we wished we knew better. By the same token, the cards we received and to which we did not reply came from individuals who wanted to cultivate us-some of my husband’s graduate students and office employees, the liquor store, the hairdresser and foreign scholars who obviously expected to visit the United States at some time in the future.

Her suggestion is that the percentage of cards sent and received by an individual function as an index of their present status and future “mobility aspirations”: to what extent are people ‘below’ you trying to cultivate you as a future social relation and to what extent are you trying to do the same thing with people ‘above’ you? However Johnson goes on to observe that sending cards is a practice which in itself tends to mark someone as middle class, with “high managerial and professional people” in particular being “the Christmas card senders par excellence”. She makes a plausible case as to the structural reasons for this, as a combination of the geographical dispersion of friendship networks that are inflected through each party’s respective trajectory up their various occupational ladders.

Intriguingly, she recounts the negative reactions from her friends while undertaking the small piece of work with which she explored this practice. Rejecting claims from others that there “is no upward sending or downward receiving in our family: it’s strictly reciprocal”, she points to the feeling of obligation as in itself socially structured: in so far as there are people to whom they felt they must send christmas cards (regardless of whether they are reciprocated) then heirarchical relations likely obtain. Conversely, receiving cards that were not reciprocated reveals one’s own status in relation to (likely) subordinates – a fact that is often occluded by the panicked response it provokes in some people:

As for people who receive cards they were not expecting-that is, cards being sent upwards to them-and who then shamefacedly rush out on Christmas Eve to mail the forgotten sender one of theirs, they are simply insecure in their status position. Imagine the president of Chase Manhattan Bank receiving a Christ- mas card from the janitor and saying remorsefully, “Oh, my God, and I didn’t send him one.” Yet thousands of people do roughly the same thing when they receive a card from someone who looks up to them.

It’s a fascinating (and short) article and you should read it. Though maybe not today, I say writing this on the 23rd November… we’re very organised here. Happy Christmas!

Categories: Rethinking The World

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