Country of Origin: Italy
The world moves on, times change, and technology continues to invade our lives. Yet every year, as Christmas approaches, I open the “box of memories” where I keep not only the letters I exchanged with my teenage friends when social media didn’t exist but also the old postcards and greeting cards that were used to exchange holiday wishes into the 90s (and some into the early years of the new millennium).
As I look at them with nostalgia, I wonder if technology has made us lose our taste for anticipation and surprise. There was something magical about opening an envelope sent by relatives and distant friends, each sharing a bit of themselves and their lives. Those with little imagination limited themselves to a brief update on the health, work, or studies of their children and cousins. Others, like my mother and grandmother, devoted themselves to writing long messages expressing the joy of reconnecting with those they couldn’t see all year because of distance or family obligations.
The practice of Christmas cards dates back to the Victorian era, and the first illustrated postcard was commissioned in 1843 by Henry Cole, the director of The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the years that followed, there was a real boom, and postcards were printed by the thousands.
In the 1920s, Christmas stamps became popular both in Italy and English-speaking countries for sealing letters. The money from their purchase was donated to the Red Cross and other charities. When I was a child, my mother used to buy postcards from the Only Painters Artists Mutilated Charity Association of the City of Verona, the charity supporting disabled artists in the city of Verona, which still exists today. They sold paintings and artwork created by artists who used their mouths and feet to create their works. Many illustrations were incredibly beautiful and evocative, such as those by painter Jolanta Borek Unikowska (1990s).
Old postcards have always held an extraordinary power for me. They transport me to a time that no longer exists. My favorites were those depicting snowy landscapes with tall trees illuminated in remote villages, and reindeer pulling sleighs through the snow. I especially treasure the postcards from the SAEMEC publishing house that specializes in this type of card, which have now become rare and collectible items and thus often sold on the internet.
Here, on the island of Sardinia, snow is a rarity. In the past hundred years, in the town where I was born, we may have seen it four times at most. When I was a child, it wasn’t common to go on a skiing vacation, though few could afford a vacation in the mountains. So those postcards opened the doors of my imagination and, like in a fairy tale, I felt drawn to unknown worlds where fantastic beings like elves and snowmen with human features smiled at me from the paper. Sometimes the subjects were religious, while at other times they were limited to Santa Claus traveling on his sleigh with sacks bursting with gifts.
Each postcard was personalized, and since my mother had taught me to draw, I often added small pencil illustrations colored in with crayons or markers. I loved to spend hours hunched over the pages, letting my creativity run wild, thinking about what to write, and carefully choosing the most appropriate words for the recipient.
Christmas festivities began when the cards were mailed in early December, with the fear that the mail might be late. They were usually folded in half with the standard phrases for everyone inside but the rest of the page was left blank so that the sender could add his or her own special message.
Also, at school, just before the holidays, teachers encouraged children to make rhymes, collages, or drawings to decorate the little cards they would give to their parents on Christmas Eve. I still have the card my English teacher had us make, which combined teaching and fun to stimulate each student’s creativity.
In 1961, my mother, six years old at the time, also wrote Christmas cards to her parents. Her old postcards show that, at that time, it was customary to include prayers for the health of the whole family. Gifts did not matter much compared to the health and happiness of loved ones.
In the 1970s, my paternal uncles emigrated to France, and since we could only see them in the summer, my father began sending them Christmas cards. It became a tradition that repeated itself every year on time, and today that tradition continues with my cousin, now an adult like me. The message on the cards that he buys is, of course, in French, but he likes to try his hand at Italian sometimes, though he isn’t fluent. It’s his way of celebrating his father’s and uncle’s heritage.
In today’s world, perhaps the immediacy of instant messaging has broken that spell of anticipation that had us waiting at the windows for the postman. Or, on the contrary, perhaps it has brought us closer to those who, for various reasons, cannot be with us for the holidays. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between.
With the advent of the internet, we have grown used to being bombarded with thousands of images scrolling across our phone screens. Sometimes, I confess, I look at them too quickly to admire them one by one. Often, I’m in such a hurry that I don’t even take the time to quietly observe the details. A part of me feels guilty because I know how much care, passion, and love an artist puts into creating their work.
When I hold my old postcards in my hand, it’s instinctive for me to stop and take in what’s in front of me, to enjoy a moment just for me, where I can let go of memories and feelings.
Maybe technology has made us neglect that a little bit. We are so distracted by animated digital visuals, that we don’t have the time to focus on the sensations that the words evoke in us. It seems like a kind of consumerism where we move from one thing to another without fully enjoying it.
I can say that technology has its positive sides, such as enabling us to share anything almost anywhere. I recently joined two Facebook groups, one in Italian and one in English, where some nostalgic people post photos of old hand-illustrated Christmas postcards. It’s getting harder and harder to find them in stores, and few people still use the postal service to send greetings, but it’s nice to know that there are other people in the world who share my interests.
Memories are a valuable resource for all of us because, after all, we know that even history is made up of a thousand life stories of unknown people. And just as the letters and postcards of those who have gone before us are preserved in the Postal Museum in London, I, too, keep the memory of the words of those who have loved me alive in my little box of memories.
Thank you to Julianna Wages for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Lifestyle & Relationships team.
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