'Tis the season to be jolly: Sleigh bells ring, menorahs flicker, shops buzz, and mailboxes are stuffed with holiday cards from work contacts, long lost friends and distant family members.

In fact, our snail-mail boxes are never so full as in December. According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association (GCA), Americans will purchase a projected 1.6 billion Christmas cards in 2012.

While the holiday card tradition seems innocuous on the surface, when the topic is raised at winter dinner parties or cocktail fêtes, opinions often fly. Some appreciate the mailers with photos of friend’s children, while others feel insulted by mass messages from pals who haven’t kept in touch during the preceding 12 months. Some scoff at images of (bragging?) couples on vacation or at lame attempts at humor, while others adore being remembered year after year. It’s hard to get it right.

After all this time, protocol for the beloved tradition remains unclear. It’s no wonder, considering shifting factors like the invention of e-cards, awareness of other holidays from Kwanzaa to Three Kings Day, and the more casual manner in which people interact. (For instance, must Christmas cards include yearlong recaps if we’ve seen each other’s pictures and status updates throughout the year on Facebook?) “Sending holiday cards is a custom that I’m pleasantly surprised hasn’t gone away,” says Peggy Post, etiquette expert and author, director of The Emily Post Institute and great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, the last word in modern manners since the 1920s. “Still, etiquette is really about being respectful and considerate. How we live that out through manners changes all the time as the world changes, and like Emily Post always did, we need to keep up with the times.”  Here, we investigate today’s rules of holiday card etiquette, according to seasons greetings experts.

The Tradition

Even the very first documented holiday cards stirred up controversy: In 1843 a British civil servant named Sir Henry Cole collaborated with artist friend John Horsley on a Christmas card, an experiment with how the newly established postal service might serve common folk. It created quite an uproar, picturing a child being fed wine (an act that would likely shock today’s kale-and-quinoa-devoted parents too). In 1875, printer Louis Prang created the first mass-produced Christmas cards in the U.S., and an American tradition was born!

Former president of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff commissioned artist Athos Menaboni to create his holiday cards for forty-four years, from the first one sent in 1941 to the last in 1984.  The Smithsonian Institute declared the collection, which is housed inside Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, one of the nation’s finest Christmas card collections in existence.

Today’s cards range from simple cursive wishes for “Joy and Peace in the New Year” to handmade printed family photo collages, featuring parents in hokey red-and-green reindeer sweaters with their eight-year-old flashing his first (rather massive) adult front teeth, and their four-year-old in her ballet costume, wiggling from her mother’s lap as the picture is snapped. The cards arrive from early December into the New Year via email and post.

But are all these different takes on the tradition acceptable?

Trust Your Instincts

Paperless Post Holiday Card

Paperless Post knows that the paper holiday card hasn't gone away. Even though the company started as online only, they know the love of the paper card hasn't gone away and this year they ventured into print.

Photo Courtesy of Paperless Post

According to Peggy Post, for the most part, they’re just fine. “These are more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules,” she explains. “I equate weddings and holidays because, with both, emotions run high, and anytime that happens, there are opportunities to ruffle feathers and worry about presentation. But it’s fundamentally about communicating and keeping in touch, and that’s a nice thing, though people may approach it differently.” That said, there are pitfalls to avoid.

When to Send — and When Is Too Late?

Post feels that holiday cards can arrive anytime from the beginning of December to early January, if the sentiment references the New Year.  And, while she cites a pal who sends her cards around Valentine’s Day, as a joke after years of lateness, Post does recommend sticking as close to the holidays as possible. Plus, the earlier cards pull more focus because they’re not one of a bunch.

To Give and Receive

Though there’s no obligation to return the gesture if someone sends a card, Post recommends reciprocating if you’re sending out a big batch anyway. On the other hand, it’s OK to slim the list down. “Just do what feels right,” she urges. “Think about what the person means to you. For instance, it may be a best friend from high school whom you haven’t seen in 15 years or a neighbor who moved across country. Mostly, you want to be sincere and honest, which is a benchmark of etiquette.” If you haven’t talked to someone in ages and want to keep them on the Christmas card list, consider giving a quick call before the holidays get crazy. Reconnecting in that way can be meaningful.

Be Sensitive to the Recipient

Regardless of whether it’s been two years or two days since you’ve last connected with your friend or family member, think before you send. If you’re leaning toward something humorous, which an older relative might find off-color, or if you’re sending a goofy card but someone on your list just lost a loved one, consider switching it up for them. The same might go for a friend who has different beliefs: If you haven’t chosen a secular sentiment like “Seasons Greetings,” consider how a religious Christmas card might be received by a Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or even atheist friend. “[Sending a card] is the same as giving a gift,” asserts Post. “Try to do something that represents your personality, but do match it up to what you think that person might like to receive. It’s extra kind to think about someone who might have had a loss in the last year and include a personal note too. The holidays can be hard.”

Personalize, but Don’t “Brag and Gag”

Adding a personal salutation, short note or signature can add warmth to any mass produced card. People appreciate the time it takes to individualize or to make a homemade card, although it does require time management.

That said, be careful not to pull a classic “brag and gag.” If you include a more lengthy holiday newsletter, for example, don’t ramble on about hip surgeries and dental work. Post advises keeping it positive. In a survey The Emily Post Institute conducted on their website, 53 percent of people said they liked receiving such letters, but 47 percent said they did not, perhaps because they find the onslaught of information presumptuous. “Try to keep it enjoyable,” Post recommends. Perhaps add a handwritten note that asks after the recipient, so the letter doesn’t feel self-centered.

Go Modern or Traditional?

According to Kacy Lubell, founder-designer of letterpress stationery company Letters Lubell, you don’t have to choose. When it comes to the etiquette of aesthetics, the key is to combine old-world mediums with fresh details to modernize. “There are a lot of different elements you can play with to create something at once traditional and untraditional,” she explains. “You can use modern fonts or classic italics with less expected colors like neons, as a nice alternative to the red and green or blue and silver norm. You can choose a more posed photo, but with a more casual or slang greeting or consider a playful layout with the words in a band surrounding the photo.”

Custom letterpress cards, like what Lubell offers, are special keepsakes and come with a steeper price tag, but these tips can apply to DIY design too. As Lubell says, “No matter what, holiday cards are a nice way to let people know you’re thinking of them and sending good wishes.”

E-Cards or Paper Notes?

Paperless Post Holiday Card

Paperless Post's print line, called PAPER, allows customers to send the same card two ways — in print and digitally.

Photo Courtesy of Paperless Post

The inevitable question remains: Can an e-card do the trick?

“People still like the warmth of a handwritten card or envelope, but an e-card is certainly acceptable, especially from a business colleague who wasn’t obligated to send anything at all,” says Post. “They’re not as personal, but they’re definitely better than nothing.”

One solution in the digital realm, if you hope to save paper or money, is to opt for higher-end, more design-focused e-cards with options like Paperless Post. That website, established in 2009 by sister-and-brother team James and Alexa Hirschfeld, offers online cards and invitations that better reflect the care and effort involved in planning important events or occasions. The cards look less generic too, and customers can partner with to- tier nonprofits to solicit donations.

And the digital choice is becoming increasingly popular. “Traffic increases markedly during the holidays,” says Paperless Post CEO and cofounder James Hirschfeld. “We see an uptick starting late autumn, with our peak month December seeing roughly 100 percent more traffic and revenue than November.” Perhaps because their customers skew younger or because people feel freer to be goofy online, the site’s most popular cards pun about “holiday spirits” and getting “elfed up!” on cocktails.

This year Paperless Post launched a print line called PAPER too, so customers can send the same card digitally to some and in print to others, which goes back to knowing your recipients and cherry picking accordingly. “From the beginning, we set out to elevate people’s ability to communicate beautifully,” continues James Hirschfeld. “[This gives] people a chance to express themselves with individuality.” The CEO suggests choosing complementary colors for the card based on the photo’s warm or cold color scheme, and no matter what, he says, include a heartfelt message.

When All Is Said and Done

Overall, Post sees trends toward warmer, more sentimental messages and photographs. And the GCA forecasts trends like nostalgia, sparkle and shine, personalization, messages of peace and bright contemporary color palettes this year.

And, after the season is over, if you struggle with how long to keep cards, especially ones with pictures of your friends' kids, Post says you’re under no obligation to keep them longer than you like. After all, displaying the cards is about projecting your personality too. And you can do what you want.  That’s just etiquette.