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Holiday Card Etiquette Rules You Should Stop Ignoring

A little lesson in manners to keep the season—and your holiday greetings—jolly and nice

young woman writing christmas cards with red nails, a red pen, and holiday decorationsJessica Ruscello/Shutterstock

It’s that time of year

Winter is officially upon us, which means that it’s time to dust off the pen, paper, and stamps for a session of good, old-fashioned, hand-written holiday card signing. But whether you’ve chosen to go with modern photo cards or traditional boxed cards, there are etiquette rules that come along with sending out these joyous, end-of-the-year good wishes. We’ve turned to Jodi Smith, etiquette consultant, and Vikki Gutierrez Isaacson, owner of Playa Paper, to learn the holiday-card etiquette rules that will keep the season merry and bright.

cardLaura Bartlett/shutterstock

No-boasting zone

If you choose to include a few highlights from this past year in your holiday card, it’s best to just stick to the facts—no need to boast or brag or include all of the details about your exotic vacations, awards you won at work, or the exact weight of your daughter’s new engagement ring, Smith says. People receiving your holiday letters already like you. No need to impress them; just share from your heart. If you’re stuck on what to write try these Christmas card messages.

writing christmas cardLightField Studios/Shutterstock

It’s okay to add some humor

The holidays are a time to reflect, look forward to the New Year…and laugh at all of the great moments from the past 12 months. So, don’t be afraid to include a funny story or two—just keep it brief, Smith shares. The details, supporting facts or funny stories are what will make your holiday card truly stand out. Don’t just tell your friends and family that your dog is smart. Tell them about the time she hid your car keys behind your rarely used exercise bike to delay a visit to the vet. For a little inspiration, check out these memorable holiday greeting card stories.

christmas cards wrapped in ribbonhedwiga/Shutterstock

Addressing your envelope

Please. write legibly. If it’s been a while since you used a pen as opposed to a keyboard, do a few practice runs on a scratch piece of paper before putting your hand to the actual envelope, recommends Isaacson. And be sure to use a pen that contrasts with your holiday envelope so that the ink is easily readable. For example, using a blue pen on a blue Hanukkah envelope makes it difficult to read. And please avoid using address labels unless it’s absolutely necessary. Those sticky tabs make the cards feel less personal. If you need to brush up on your punctuation, here’s how to pluralize last names that end in “s.”

christmas card envelope and stampsJeff Blackler/Shutterstock

Stamp selection

Resist the temptation to use your company’s postage meter to send out holiday cards. Saving money may be critical throughout the year, but affixing a real postage stamp is a great way to express your personality—and it makes your cards look less cookie cutter and more personal, notes Isaacson. The U.S. Post Office has done an amazing job of curating beautiful designs and turning postage stamps into little works of art to make your holiday envelopes pop—plus it makes a beautiful impression before your card is even opened. Find another way to save money—try one of these free printable Christmas cards.

family christmas photoSnezana Ignjatovic/Shutterstock

Selecting the right photo

If you’re having photo cards made, select a photo that captures a special moment—even if it’s not picture-perfect, says Isaacson. Let’s face it: It’s hard to get all the kids to focus in the same direction at the same time and not blink, and that’s okay. If your little one’s attention is elsewhere at the moment, it might be good for a laugh, like these 25 family photos that are hilariously awkward. Also, choose an image crop—horizontal or vertical—that complements the card design.

writing christmas card88studio/Shutterstock

Wish them well

This holiday card is for someone else…so avoid making it all about you, you, and you, Smith says. In addition to the updates about your life, be sure to include well wishes to the card’s recipients and to their families. Offer positive thoughts if you know that someone’s grandparent is ill or lots of luck to the son or daughter who has mid-term exams to look forward to in the New Year. After all, the holiday card is part of your season’s greeting to others. If you’re short on something entertaining to say, look up the person’s birthday and tell them what 2020 has in store based on their Chinese zodiac sign or share one of these classic Christmas quotes.

christmas card listAnatoliy Karlyuk/Shutterstock

Making your list…

Who makes it on your holiday card list is a personal decision; some people only include close friends and family members, while others send cards to everyone from the babysitter and coworkers to clients, customers, and distant cousins, Isaacson says. A good first step is to include people who sent cards to you last year and build out your list from there. But if anyone has been naughty this year, take them off the list. Have you been naughty or nice this year? Take the quiz.

Season's greeting's concepts with cards and gift box present,ornament element on wood table background.Merry christmas and winter collection imagesHAKINMHAN/Shutterstock

What to write?

People celebrate lots of different winter holidays, and some don’t celebrate any at all. If you’re worried about offending someone, a simple “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” will do, Isaacson shares. Or say thanks for something that person did during the year that brought you joy. Finally, if your card or stationery has a machine-printed greeting or message, do be sure to sign your name in ink for a personal touch that makes the recipient feel special.

Smiling woman sitting surfing the internet on a laptop computer on a sofa at home, side rear view with the screen with reflections visiblestockfour/Shutterstock

Proof, edit, Proof, edit, Proof. edit…

Holiday cards are definitely not the place for misspelled or scratched out words; they should be as neat as possible, Smith says. If you’re writing a message inside the card, perhaps type it out first and take advantage of that spell check function. If you’re typing out a letter to go with your holiday card, take a little time to edit and proofread it for flow, clarity, and of course…misspelled words! Be careful not to make these common holiday card grammar mistakes.

Woman reading a heartfelt message, note, book or card. She is smiling and has her hand to heart.Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock

Keep it positive

If you want to vent about politics or your ex-husband… save it for your journal, Smith advises. Holiday cards and letters are not the place to air grievances, dish gossip about a family member, or air your dirty laundry. Things may not have gone as well as you’d hoped this year (divorce, job loss, etc…) but it’s always best to keep the holiday vibes positive by focusing on the good in life. A good rule of thumb to follow: If you wouldn’t talk about it the holiday dinner table, don’t write it in your cards.

Handmade Christmas greeting card using cutout shapes on natural kraft paper hanging from pegs on string line. Milleflore Images/Shutterstock

Point of view

The people on your holiday card list know you and want to hear from you, so write in your normal voice—whether you’re typically more casual or formal. Please don’t write from the point of view of your basset hound, your infant, or in any way refer to yourself in the third person, Smith shares. Most people would find that creepy and irritating…not cute. Eye-rolls from friends and family members would be so dramatic… they’d almost be audible.

christmas card in mailboxRTimages/Shutterstock

Timing is everything

What’s the perfect time to send out a holiday card? Some of your perpetually organized friends arranged for professional photo shoots over the summer, selected their holiday cards by Labor Day, then dropped them off (signed and sealed) at the post office the day after Thanksgiving… but you still have time, Smith shares. And if the month manages to slide past you then aim to send out New Year’s cards. The important thing is that you reach out to those you care about at least once a year. And enjoy getting opening all the cards that come your way. Once the season is over, try these creative new uses for old holiday cards.

Dana Robinson
Dana Robinson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who regularly covers health, beauty, culture, and food for Reader's Digest as well as,, Wine Enthusiast, AARP, and Southwest: The Magazine. She earned an MA in Mass Communication from California State University, Northridge.