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The Digital Grinch has Stolen our Christmas Cards

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Rewards of handwritten notesYesterday I walked out to our mailbox and found not one Christmas card. I know it's not that our family has suddenly become unpopular -- at least not judging from our email boxes, or our Facebook friends. It's that real old-fashioned cards with handwritten notes are a ghost of the Christmas past. And maybe that's what it takes before all the Whos in Whoville come to their senses.

Only when something becomes obsolete, it seems, can we begin to truly appreciate it -- think of candles, or wooden boats, or homemade bread. Today it's handwritten notes, including holiday cards, that are now archaic. But it's time to bring these notes back lovingly into our lives. Your own handwritten notes, sealed inside hand-addressed envelopes, have the power to impress, or to caress, in a way no other form of communication can.

I interviewed all the Whos, including little Cindy Lou Who, and they suggested these six tips.

Tip No. 1: Don't fret about your handwriting. Really. It's fine.

JFK's handwriting on envelopes

Okay, we may get testy letters from the National Handwriting Association (neatly written, of course), but here it goes: Just write like nobody's watching. Don't worry about not forming your Qs correctly or that a forensic handwriting expert might report you to Homeland Security. (Even President Kennedy had atrocious handwriting.)

Steve's handwriting

You don't even have to actually write: printing is just fine. (It's all I do and people tell me they like my handwriting.) Beautiful cursive handwriting, which some people still have, is a lovely thing. But it's kind of like the ability to make your own flaky pie crusts or saw fine dovetail joints in your woodshop -- nice, but not necessary.

That said, you might try slowing down a bit when writing with your pen and see if you like the result. Type fast, text fast, but when writing by hand to friends or lovers, slow down. Relish the pensive pause.

Tip No. 2: Keep it short -- for your sake and theirs.

Just a few lines can make someone's day. Think of text messaging and Twitter, and how much you can convey in a few words and symbols. To free your mind further, here's a bonus fact from the dusty pages of writing etiquette: it's bad form to write on the back of a card -- use just the front.

Tip No. 3: Don't worry about having nice stationery and a good pen. (I can't believe I'm saying this.)

We sell lots of nice pens and cards at Levenger, and if you like using fine pens, I like you already. It does add to the pleasure (see tip #5). But the bald truth is: you don't need fancy stuff. Don't let a lack of pleasing pens and decent stationery be any barrier to writing. Use whatever's handy.

Tip No. 4: Use relaxed, conversational language--write as you speak.

Unless you're applying for a job as copy editor, take some chances with sentence construction. You won't be graded. Write like you speak (not "as you speak").

Tip No. 5: Make it a habit by making it a ritual.

One of the nice things about coffee is the ritual of it--the stirring, the sipping, the cradling of mug in hand. Writing by hand can be much the same. And here is where having a favorite pen and stationery at the ready can help invite you to a task you want to do.

I know some people who set aside a few minutes each afternoon to turn from their screens and take up pen and stationery to write a few notes to customers, friends, or colleagues. We humans love rituals, and this is one that's rewarding for everyone involved.

Tip No. 6: When sending physical mail, make it physical.

Do what email can't--put things in the envelope that are impossible to send electronically.

Start with obvious things like business cards, photos, that parking ticket you haven't had a chance to pay. But then literally push the envelope. What's wrong with, say, a couple Popsicle sticks? They can be handy for all sorts of projects, and you can write on them as well. "Sorry, I had to eat these because they were too big for the envelope."

Or how about those expired dog tags? "If you see my dog, please get him to wear these; he keeps leaving the house without his collar."

Or a plastic hotel room key with a picture of some dreamy place you've been to and your friend has not. (Is that wrong?)

It's really pretty amazing what you can send when you think about it. Just open up your junk drawer and see what needs to take a trip.

The moral of the story

There's another reason why it's important to keep handwritten notes alive, and why we must do it now or lose our chance:

Those of us over the age of 45 or so are the last generation of humans who lived when physical mail was the thing. We were young when long-distance phone calls were expensive and rare, we can remember a world without fax and email. We are the living history of handwritten notes--those notes we received as children from our elders and the notes we sent back.

It falls to our generation to carry the torch forward, to show the younger and the youngest how the old form of taking pen to paper still burns bright and carries a warmth all its own.

A photograph that needs no picture

Thomas Mallon's Yours Ever Thomas Mallon has just written a most beautiful love letter to the personal letter. His new book, Yours Ever, is filled with examples of how private lives and public histories have been enriched, and often defined, by letters. For Tom, the handwritten note has become the indelible, immutable photograph.

"The handwriting of all the people I've known the longest and cherish the most is as recognizable to me -- and as individual -- as their faces. In some ways more so, because the handwriting changes less," Tom says. "We're all amateur graphologists, and it seems indisputable to me that some element of every person's character and personality is detectable in his penmanship."

So how about it, dear Huff Po reader: has this convinced you to keep alive this obsolete technology? Please share your own ideas and practices that might help more of us keep the archaic, but lovable, handwritten note alive -- at Christmas and all year long.