Some Christmas traditions – like trees, and ornaments and carols – seem to be as popular as ever. Others, like the annual Christmas card, aren’t faring quite as well. Last week a columnist for TIME Magazine asked whether Christmas cards are obsolete in the social media era.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for the Christmas card, but among the finest Christmas cards sent in years past came from New England's most well-loved poet, Robert Frost.
"A stranger to our yard..."
In addition to being the most celebrated American poet of his day, extolling the rural life in northern New England and the people who lived it, Robert Frost was a Christmas lover, and for nearly 30 years he sent friends and supporters what were probably the most ornate and unique Christmas cards they ever received.
Not surprisingly, the tradition started with a poem. It’s called “Christmas Trees,” in which a stranger comes from the city to the narrator’s country home to look over, and possibly buy, his stand of balsam firs. This poem caught the imagination of Frost’s printer Joe Blumenthal, according to Steve Smith, who recently wrote about the Robert Frost cards for Dartmouth College’s Alumni office.
“He [Blumenthal] took it upon himself to make these cards and send them to some of his friends," Smith says. "So a few months after they were sent Robert Frost saw one, and he thought it was great, and he contacted Joe Blumenthal, and they decided to do this in a more organized way.”
"Really beautiful pieces"
Now when – or if – you and I send holiday greetings, they’re usually preproduced and pretty basic – a photo or a drawing on the front, a pre-printed message inside, maybe a handwritten note or a short letter.
Frost’s cards? They were anything but basic.
“Each of them is about 3 to 20 pages long," Steve Smith says. "They all have a bound cover, artwork on the cover, title pages, detailed fonts and engravings on the cover as well. So they’re really beautiful pieces - there’s woodcuts of birch trees and hemlocks and hay fields, so the artwork on the cover really communicate the poetry of Robert Frost.”
Smith says Frost liked seeing his words take on visual beauty, accompanied and complemented by those woodcuts and engravings. It was, after all, a better view for readers than what those words would get in a regular bound volume.
But aesthetics weren’t the only things on Frost’s mind each December.
A circle of friends
Robert Frost was “a natural networker," according to Jay Parini, a poet and novelist who teaches at Middlebury College. Parini, who wrote a biography of Robert Frost in 2000. The cards were "a kind of outgrowth of his impressive networking ability.
“[Frost] was immensely popular," Parini explains, "but he wanted to create an intimate circle. And this si a way of rewarding those who had stood behind him - colleges who had professors who would regularly invite him to give readings. And you were special if you got on his list to receive an original Frost Christmas card signed by Robert Frost.”
Essentially, Parini says, New England’s most legendary poet was doing what insurance agents, dental offices and mechanics do with their cards every year: a little branding, saying something along the lines of “thanks for your business.”
That said, Frost always made sure the poetry came first.
“Once, in fact, he had a poem that really didn’t fit a Christmas theme, it was a summer poem," Parini says. "And so he – only once – waited six months to send out his Christmas card in July. Suddenly everybody got a Christmas card from Frost in the middle of July. He called it half-Christmas.”
Robert Frost sent these Christmas - or half-Christmas - cards to friends and supporters nearly every year from 1934 until his death in the early 1960’s. Dartmouth College has more than 500 of the cards at the Rauner Special Collections Library, some with handwritten messages by Robert Frost.
Oh - and as for the poem “Christmas Trees”, the poem that led to the cards in the first place? The narrator thinks over that city stranger’s offer– it works out to three cents a tree - and decides… nah.
“A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.”
Words truly fit for a Christmas card.