Past Christmases

No matter how far we wander, the twilight of the year is a time to turn toward home, to family and the elusive perfection of how we imagine holidays should feel.

But like the soldiers weeping in the trenches as Bing sang of “where the love light gleams,” circumstances can often get in the way. Thankfully, for as long as there have been post offices, we’ve at least had the ability to pen a few lines to far-flung friends and relatives. The tradition of Christmas cards—those snapshots of everything as it should be—is nowhere near forgotten.

Yes, this is 2021 and maybe there’s no need to send greetings through the mail anymore. But according to the Greeting Card Association (I looked this up), 6.5 billion greeting cards are still sold annually in the U.S., and 1.6 billion of those cards are what we think of as Christmas cards. That seems like a lot, but again, I found it on the internet.

Young families take some credit for keeping the tradition of mailed holiday greetings alive, notably with photo cards. Millennials are having babies like crazy, and they never got rid of the dogs. This combination of cuteness makes for great content when affixed with magnets to anything metal in the kitchen. This was the goal when my wife Kim and I, as newly married consumers, sent out a holiday shot of us with our beagles and a terrified cat in 1992, and it persisted for years on Mom and Dad’s refrigerator door.  

Then there are the cards that are so dang pretty you want to put a frame around them. To this day my mom still sets out the elegant ones as a form of Christmas decoration, and a few inelegant ones alongside in case their senders should drop by unannounced. 

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum has a nice collection of keepsake cards from years past, and among the most valuable are the cards sent by Amarillo’s Russell Stationery Co. from as far back as the 1930s. Horace M. Russell, the printing firm’s founder, was well known for the Christmas cards he created and printed in his shop. In a tribute written in the Amarillo Globe-Times at the time of his death in 1937, it was said he printed and mailed 10,000 cards each year, and received as many as 7,000 Christmas cards in return. 

Noted Texas artist Ben Carlton Mead, who was living in Amarillo at the time, illustrated some of Russell’s most memorable cards in the 1930s—mostly with images of cowboys and pioneer folks kindling Christmas cheer in the snowy bleakness of their new homeland. Each year Russell dreamed up the dialogue and Mead would imagine
a picture around the words. Russell’s company continued this Christmas tradition after his passing, and also produced cards illustrated by famed Western artist Harold Dow Bugbee.

Another treasure in the museum’s collection is a New Year’s greeting from around the turn of the 20th century printed in the form of a checkbook, the cover of which features two rosy-cheeked, nuzzling girls surrounded by embossed holly leaves. Labeled “Checks for the New Year,” the booklet contains blank checks for the transaction of blessings. Conceivably, the sender could write out the checks, or the receiver could make a check to him or herself whenever they might be having a crappy day in the year to come.

Most of us won’t send greetings that will wind up in a museum or even my mom’s arrangement of elegant cards. But whatever we send will no doubt be cherished by someone in need of being missed. In those quiet places of the heart, our prayerful intentions, written in a sloppy hand, can bring us all together at Christmas. If only in our dreams.  

Author

  • Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.