The biggest rules for Christmas card etiquette, and the mistakes to avoid.
Christmastime is almost here! That wonderful season when we deck the halls, trim the tree, watch endless corny made-for-TV holiday movies and put Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on repeat! Oh, yes, and send out Christmas cards!
The time-honored tradition of exchanging Christmas cards with family and friends is one that many of us enjoy. It’s a thrill like no other to go to the mailbox each day in December and see those glorious card envelopes instead of just a pile of junk mail. We take our time in the store’s stationery aisle picking out a box that has the perfect sentiment we want to convey or spend hours scrutinizing dozens of pictures of our adorable children to select the one that will make for a brilliant photo card designed online.
So now that you have your Christmas cards in hand, you are ready to write them out and start spreading that holiday cheer! However, just like any other type of written communication, there are some basic rules of etiquette to follow, like how to address the envelope, when to mail your cards out so they arrive on time, and how to make your family’s last name plural! Here's everything you need to know about Christmas card etiquette.
Christmas Card Etiquette
When Should You Mail Your Christmas Cards?
A good rule of thumb is to have your cards arrive two weeks before the holiday, be it Christmas, Hanukkah or even New Year’s, suggests Diane Gottsman, an international etiquette expert, author and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “Two weeks in advance is the optimum time,” she shares with Parade. “It also gives the receiver enough time to send one back if they accidentally forgot about you!"
Bear in mind that as of October 1, 2021, the United States Post Office changed its three-day delivery standard for first-class mail to reach its destination to five days. Ideally, if you aim to mail out your holiday cards by December 3, they should arrive in the week leading up to Christmas Eve—but getting them to the post office by the day after Thanksgiving will ensure that they arrive within Gottsman’s two-week time frame!
It’s Okay To Send a Christmas Card to Friends Who Celebrate Hanukkah
If you can send a card specific to the holiday that friends of another culture celebrate this time of year, great. But don’t stress about it. “Hey, 'Season’s Greeting' covers a variety of holidays,” says Gottsman. “Yes, you are sending out ‘Merry Christmas’ cards, but if you have someone from a different culture, sending them a personalized card is always the best idea. However, if you send out a card and it has a different cultural greeting, your friends will understand without judgment.”
Lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, the founder of the Swann School of Protocol, agrees. “Send what resonates with you,” Swann tells Parade. “If you celebrate Christmas, send Christmas cheer. If you don’t celebrate Christmas and you prefer to send Happy Holidays, then send that. But don’t put yourself in a bind. You don’t have to buy three sets of cards.”
Are Photo Christmas Cards Appropriate To Send to Everyone?
Personally, I love the holiday photo cards from friends and family, getting to see how big my college roommate’s kids have grown since last Christmas. And as a busy mom, I appreciate the convenience of a vibrant, pre-printed photo card when it comes to sending holiday greetings out myself! But is it acceptable to send a photo card to everyone on your list?
“Photo cards should be sent out to folks who would appreciate the photo,” suggests Swann. “If you have folks that you have an acquaintance with, but maybe they’re not very close to you, your dog and your children, then send them a card.”
Related: Fun Santa Facts
Are Digital Christmas Cards Acceptable To Send Out?
There is no right or wrong way to share season’s greetings, and digital cards are just as acceptable in bestowing merry wishes upon your loved ones. “Digital cards have become more common because they are cost-effective and efficient,” says Gottsman.
However, she adds, that comes with a caveat. “Keep in mind that not everyone will be able to easily access or open a digital card. There is something special about seeing your name on the front of an envelope, opening it up, and hanging it from a beautiful ribbon or on your refrigerator.” And there’s a very good chance that your digital Christmas card will just get lost amid the spam email and social media notifications.
Keep Professional Greetings Professional
There’s a big difference between sending a Christmas card to the president of your company versus Great Aunt Mary. “Purchase a set of cards for your work environment that is a little more generic and then maybe another set of cards for folks in your safe space. But don’t tie yourself in a knot trying to please everyone,” suggests Swann. “If you choose to send the same cards, you can write a different inscription inside based upon who the recipient is.”
Include a Personal Note
While senders obviously sign their names on the holiday cards they mail out, not including a hand-written message of some sort for the recipient is the most common card-etiquette mistake people make, says Gottsman. “It’s important to personalize it in some way. Although a pre-printed Christmas card is fine, writing a short little note—or at least signing your name instead of using a computer-generated card—is preferable.”
Swann adds that a handwritten signature is a bare minimum you should be including in your holiday cards, even if you aren’t acknowledging the recipient inside the card. “At least sign your name. Don’t run them through your printer, don’t use a stamp… at least, sign your name,” she insists.
If your Christmas card preference is a glossy photo of your kids dressed up in their holiday finest, try to leave an area where you can add a personal note, or flip the photo over and inscribe a few words of cheer on the back.
How to Sign Your Family’s Name
If you are a single person sending out Christmas cards, then your signature should be your full formal name (“Christine Jones”) unless your recipients are friends and family you are close with. Then, just your first name or a familiar nickname is acceptable. When determining whose name should come first for a couple, Swann says to list the more dominant personality first. “Think about a couple that’s dancing: Someone’s leading and someone’s following, even with same-sex couples,” she explains. “Think about who’s the leader and who’s the follower if you were doing the tango.”
Christmas cards can be signed either with only the family’s surname or by listing each family member individually. If you only want to include your family’s surname, then you would write “The Smith Family” or “The Smiths.” (We will dive deeper into how to make your last name plural in a minute!) Signing off with just the family surname can be trickier for blended families. In that case, should you only want to go with last names, something like “The Smith & Decker Families” or “The Smith-Decker Family” would be most appropriate. You want to make sure that if the family includes stepsiblings with different last names, everyone in the household is represented properly.
Including the family’s last name isn’t completely necessary when it comes to Christmas cards. If the recipient of your holiday greeting knows who your family is, then it is perfectly fine to list your household members by just first names. According to American Stationery, when signing a card from the entire family, the husband’s name is typically listed first, followed by the wife and then the children listed from oldest to youngest—for example, “Don, Karen, Michael and Mandy.” However, going back to Swann’s tango analogy, it is also perfectly acceptable to use the wife’s name first when listing the family members.
One more rule of thumb when it comes to naming your family members is this: If a child is grown and living on their own, then there is no need to include them in your holiday card. If they are old enough to be paying rent or a mortgage, then they are old enough to send out their own Christmas cards! The same holds true for those to whom you are sending a card. If Cousin Grace’s son just moved out of her home for the first time, then the correct thing to do would be to send him a card of his own at his new residence.
Related: Easy DIY Christmas Decoration Ideas
The Correct Way To Address Christmas Card Envelopes
One of the biggest mistakes people make when sending out Christmas cards is not properly addressing the outer envelope. “Make sure that there is enough postage and the names on the front are spelled correctly,” advises Gottsman. “And always include a return address label.” (These holiday return envelope labels from Mabel’s Labels are super cute!)
Swann adds that you should be mindful of incorporating professional titles, such as Doctor, Reverend or a military rank, and list that person first on the outer envelope. “If it’s a couple, address it to both of them,” she points out. “If it’s a family, you can write ‘John and Kathy Smith and Family.’ If they are within your inner circle, it’s perfectly fine to address it [more casually] to ‘The Smith Family.’”
According to Hallmark’s envelope addressing etiquette, a married couple’s name should be written as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” In a case where a married couple has different last names, then the envelope should be addressed to “Mr. John Smith and Ms. Lori Miller.” If a couple is not married, according to Hallmark, then go alphabetically by last name on two separate lines.
Avoid These Common Christmas Card Grammatical Mistakes
The last thing you want is for your beautiful Christmas card to be littered with grammatical mistakes! Here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure that your holiday greetings are error-free.
If you are addressing your recipient(s) at the top of the card, make sure to include an opening sentiment like To or Dear, and then list their name. If three or more names are included, be sure to separate the list with a comma after each.
Likewise, make sure that your closing greeting (Peace and Love, Happy Holidays, etc.) is also followed by a comma, and follow the same rules for separating your family’s first names with commas. (Using the Oxford comma—the final comma in a list before “and”—is grammatically optional and comes down to your personal preference.)
Be mindful of the difference between using contractions versus possessives when writing personal notes on your Christmas cards. “Its the most wonderful time of the year, and we hope you’re family is doing well over their!” is what you don’t want to write!
“It’s” is a contraction for “It is” or “It has,” while “its” (no apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to.” If you ever doubt which version of “your” or “you’re” to use, well then just remember Ross and Rachel’s break-up on FRIENDS: “Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E means you are. Y-O-U-R means your!” And “there” is about location, while “they’re” is the contraction of “they are” and “their” is the possessive form of they.
An apostrophe makes something possessive, not plural. For example, “Season’s Greetings” is correct—you are sending someone greetings that belong to the season of the year. But “Happy Holiday’s” is wrong—you are bestowing good wishes for multiple holidays, not giving a single holiday possession of the happy greeting.
Making a family’s last name possessive rather than plural is a common faux pas on Christmas cards. You never, ever, need to include an apostrophe when it comes to naming your family as a collective plural group on a Christmas card—or any other form of written communication for that matter! Remember, an apostrophe makes something possessive, not plural. If your last name ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, then add -es to make it plural: The Higginses, The Perezes, The Walshes. If your last name ends in any other letter, simply add an -s to the end to make it plural: The Gianninos, The Levines, The McQuins. That even goes for last names that end in Y: It’s The Murphys, not The Murphies. It’s that simple!
Just to confuse matters, there are some exceptions to this rule. When a name ends in ch but is pronounced with a hard k sound, the plural form would use -s, like The Ehrlichs versus The Birches. Similarly, so would a name ending in a silent x, like The Boudreauxs versus The Tarboxes.
Next, check out these cool DIY handmade Christmas cards!