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Holiday cards target more secular shoppers and those with varying levels of faith

Today, cards emphasize humor, fun and pop culture.
Debby Garbato

When it comes to God and religion, today’s U.S. population encompasses staunch followers, moderate observers, resolute atheists and many shades in between. The number of nonreligious consumers continues to grow, with millennials being the least religious group. Since millennials spend the most per December holiday card, suppliers are offering more products recognizing their values. 

Cards are more secular and generic, emphasizing humor, fun and pop culture. Using heartfelt, nonsectarian messages that are not too long, gooey or serious, they celebrate the value of relationships in a post COVID-19 world. Art can involve animals, nature, word plays or celebrities. Holiday cards targeting African-Americans and Hispanics are also important. 

Classic Christmas designs involving icons like Santa and baby Jesus continue to perform. But they are taking a lighter approach and utilizing contemporary colors and designs. Customary red and green remain popular, but they are being complimented by pink, teal and other hues, yielding new looks and reinterpretations of established themes.

“While traditional and religious designs are still important, there’s a trend toward being a bit more generic,” said Don Kallil, president, Design Design. “This is the biggest transition over the past 10 years. Many people want to send cards across groups with varying degrees of faith. We still use traditional Christmas trees and religious images. But they’re executed in more contemporary, secular ways. They appeal to Christians who are progressive, current thinkers.”

[Read more: In the cards: Designer Greetings celebrates 40 years in business]

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Religious interest began waning about 40 years ago. In 1971, 96% of U.S. adults indicated a religious preference; just 4% cited no affiliation, said a 2021 Gallup Poll. In 2021, 20% cited no religious affiliation. Among millennials, 33% identified as nonreligious. Millennials are also the most culturally varied generation in U.S. history, with 38% being of non-Anglo descent. And 9.1% identified as LGBT, compared to 3.8% for Gen X and 2% among Boomers, indicated Gallup.

“Younger generations are more diverse across culture and faith,” said Amy McAnarney, vice president and general manager, key accounts and business development, Hallmark Cards. “It’s not uncommon for them to spend $5 to $10 on cards whose holiday messages are open-minded, inclusive and sensitive to everyone’s beliefs.”

Holiday card choices

Big companies like Hallmark and American Greetings have something for everyone, while smaller entities target popular niches. This gives retailers many choices.

“The biggest focus is having options,” said Nora Weiser, executive director, Greeting Card Association. “When people look for a card, they want to see themselves reflected in it. If I’m very religious, that’s what I’ll pick. If I’m a ‘happy holidays’ person, I might pick that. You want it to feel right to you and the recipient. The bigger brands cater to broad ranges of people; smaller makers have more specific viewpoints.”

Hallmark’s religious cards include traditional subjects like mangers, angels and wisemen. Messages emphasize God, blessings and faith. More secular cards emphasize fun, like its National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Musical 3D Pop-Up card with lights and a card that lists all the places Santa sees you — shopping, watching TV, etc. A third card emphasizes relationships, with two astronauts floating in space amid Christmas lights. It reads, “My favorite place in the universe is right next to you.” The latter two designs were finalists in the Greeting Card Association’s 33rd Louie Awards (2021-22). 

[Read more: Hallmark, Morgan Harper Nichols partner on Real Stories line]

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Design Design has an embossed card with a pine wreath shaped like a peace sign that says, “Peace on earth.” Another depicts multi-racial angels and reads, “Christmas blessings to you and yours.” Said Kallil, “It appeals to somebody religious or moderately religious.”

That’s funny

Humor is often supplanting traditional sentiments. “There’s always a strong market for traditional, which will never go away,” said Monika Brandrup, vice president and creative director, Up With Paper. “If I take a snapshot and compare Christmas cards 10 years ago to today, they’re definitely less traditional, with more humor interjected.”

The company’s specialty is pop-up cards, often with lights and sound. One plays on the popular Yeti beverage mug, saying, “Are we ready to open presents Yeti?” It retails for $12.33 at Walmart. “Millennials want the perfect card,” she added. “They don’t care if it’s $12 if it has the right sentiment.”

Hallmark’s Shoebox collection helps consumers connect in “funny, real and unexpected ways,” McAnarney said. One card shows Michael Scott in a Santa suit saying, “Presents are a tangible thing you can point to and say ‘Hey, Man, I love you this many dollars’ worth’; You are worth many dollars to me. Merry Christmas!” Another collection’s card shows a dog in a Santa hat saying, “I ate tinsel and my poop sparkles.”

Shoppers’ interpretations of humor continually evolve. “Before, we tapped into sentimental, nostalgic images like snowmen in a conga line,” said Aubrey Stalnaker, senior art director, seasonal, Avanti Press. “We’ve kind of been all over. Language and people’s sense of humor changes.”

Avanti is all about humor. One card features a cat downing eggnog. Another shows a cat with a wine bottle and says, “Dreaming of a white Christmas... because someone drank all the red. Merry Christmas.” A long-time bestseller shows a dog in the snow licking a pole and getting its tongue stuck. It reads, “Merwwy Chwithmuth!”

The humor segment has moved away from the somewhat obnoxious focus of several years ago, favoring more heartfelt sentiments and personal relationships. “It’s become warmer and more real,” said Avanti spokesperson Dave Phipps. 

Brandrup credits COVID-19. “There’s definitely been a change in sentiment that focuses on gathering with friends and family.”

COVID-19’s path of death and disruption made people value kindness more. “For a while, cards were sassy,” Kallil said. “Now, we’re facing challenging times. People want laughter without being mean.”

[Read more: Play your cards right: Greeting card category still relevant in the face of the pandemic and digital communications]

Trendy religious cards and ethnic consumers

Not all Christmas cards are humorous. Naomi Paper Co. focuses entirely on religion. Its contemporary cards creatively use typefaces, vintage images and other unique elements. “They’re not traditional,” said Sarah Schwartz, editor-in-chief of Stationery Trends and editor of “That’s where the segment is going, particularly among younger people. Even super religious millennials don’t want mom’s Christmas cards.”

Multicultural consumers are growing in ranks and importance. Hallmark’s Mahogany collection celebrates African-American history and values. Hallmark also offers VIDA, a Spanish-language lifestyle brand, and Navidad for Latinos, which emphasizes faith and family. Tree of Life targets Jews for Hanukkah and other holidays.

“Multicultural relevance includes themes around faith, family and home,” McAnarney said. “Timely and topical content is an expectation, especially for African-Americans and Hispanics who see themselves as early trend adopters.”

More colors

Today’s Christmas cards transcend red and green with pink, aqua, neons, bold primary colors and pastels. Diverse colors make cards less generic and more personal. For example, Design Design’s nonsectarian “Celebrate the season” card uses green, blue, pink and yellow pastels against shiny silver above a winter skating scene.

“It’s not ‘Here’s what I think of the holiday,’” Weiser said. “It’s more about ‘How I feel about the holiday.’ Colors add a fresh look.”

Dusty pink on white and black and white are also popular. “It feels like holiday, but it’s a bit updated,” Schwartz said. Embossing is another trend. “It increases perceived value,” she added.

As the holidays near, inflation, slower job growth and other economic woes continue. Some experts say a recession is imminent. This would be good news for holiday cards, which perform well in economic downturns.

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