When Richmond, Virginia-based Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham began their stationery business, Ash + Chess, in 2017, they focused on prints and cards with queer-positive and political messages. But there was one mainstay that they tried to avoid.
“We really struggled with designing holiday cards because I just kind of hate this whole Christmas thing,” Molesso said in a recent interview. “So we tried to make our holiday cards a bit more ambiguous or neutral.”
They’ve only made about 10 holiday cards so far, but this year they added one particularly striking new offering to their website. “Wishing you warmth this holiday season!” the card proclaims on a pink-and-green background—with a police car on fire. It’s cute, succinct, and provocative, and strangely fitting for a holiday season at the end of a year that’s seen a global pandemic, unprecedented protests against police brutality, and a stressful election.
With traditional holiday gatherings canceled or radically transformed, cards are a sensible and safe alternative to a circuit of parties. But it’s hard to know how to be festive on paper in a year that has been suffused with so much grief, division, and loneliness. So while a flaming car might not be the right holiday greeting for everyone, stationery and custom photo-card companies have taken an array of approaches, ranging from sobriety to subtle acknowledgment to all-out bemusement. Even Shutterfly, the industry stalwart, has a few popular designs that amount to a shrug in 2020’s direction. “Well…that was crazy!” reads one. Another features a sample image of crying children, captioned: “This will have to do.”
Joanna Goddard, longtime face of the lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo, decided she was going to send out cards this year after taking a few years off. Over the course of the pandemic, she savored the photos and cards she did have displayed around the house, and even printed out a few more. “It just feels so good to see a fridge full of friendly faces,” she said on the phone. “You can feel so alone, and you almost forget about all the people in your life, but when they’re all right in front of you staring at you, it’s such a good feeling.”
Even though the kitschy, posed Christmas portraits of the past are largely out of style—except for ironic purposes, perhaps—staged family scenes have remained a mainstay. As the technology has developed, it’s been easier and easier to create photo collages, leading to a proliferation of vacations, casual shots, and outtakes alongside the center image. Those options are still available, but how do you sum up a year spent inside your house?
Realizing that she didn’t have the type of photo she might have used in the past, Goddard decided she wanted an accurate reflection of how the year actually went and would likely use a picture of her kids at play. “Obviously everybody’s struggling, and trying to figure out how to reflect that and get that right is pretty tricky. My sister is making a photo card of her and her daughter, and it just says, ‘Cheers, dudes.’ It’s just kind of whatever—it has their little faces and it says, ‘Cheers, dudes.’ I think that’s the perfect tone.”
Over the last few years, the greeting card industry has stabilized after decades of decline, thanks in part to a cohort of millennials who are attracted to humorous messages, customizable options, and high-quality photo printing. In 2019, George White, the Greeting Card Association’s current president, told NPR that the organization noticed that these consumers had expanded the definition of what types of events are considered “cardworthy.”
Needham and Molesso’s business encapsulates that—it offers cards for someone who is coming out as queer, and the website even offers a “whatever” section, with messages like “Magical AF” and “It Will All Be Okay.” But as the pandemic shifted the business from retail wholesale to direct-to-consumer, Needham said the company started to see more demand for its edgier offerings. “Usually stores will want to buy something that’s a little safer,” he said, adding that he hoped the demand might represent a desire to actually engage a bit further with the ideas being referenced—like, say, a cop car on fire.
The act of sending and receiving mail became unexpectedly controversial over and over this year, from early pandemic concerns about viral spread on packages to October’s pre-election post office delays. But the USPS’s fiscal crisis was also met with a wave of support, on top of what might have been a general pandemic impulse to reach out and (metaphorically) touch someone. In June the writer Rachel Syme started a penpal-matching program, which has ultimately garnered over 7,000 participants, and spent the year tweeting photos of the elaborate, aesthetically pleasing mail she was sending and receiving.
For Artifact Uprising, a website that lets consumers customize cards and photo books, the pandemic and postal issues made planning for the holiday season especially difficult, according to Kristin Peters, the company’s chief marketing officer—but there were some unexpected bright spots. As the pandemic intensified, the types of photo books or cards that might have been used to document weddings or vacations were becoming vehicles for long-gestating creative projects or celebrations of everyday moments.
“We had a customer who created an entire book of photos that she’s taken of the moon, and it was just a gorgeous coffee-table book,” Peters said in an interview this fall. The company recently launched a new photo-wrapped hardcover book, and a few of the earliest adopters did something unexpected. “Some of the first people to adopt that book were actually using it for boudoir photography”—her theory is that quarantined couples might have wanted to spice up their relationships.