Christmas cards; one woman’s mission

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By Brad Dison

Sending Christmas cards has been a yearly tradition since John Callcott Horsley designed the first Christmas card in 1843, the same year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Each year, people send festively decorated Christmas cards to friends and relatives. Cards come in innumerable varieties. They often contain religious sentiment, a poem, a prayer, Christmas song lyrics, a Bible verse, but the most traditional greeting is “Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

These small, simple Christmas cards always seem to lift spirits and spread Christmas cheer. Unfortunately, sending Christmas cards has been declining steadily in the 21st century. Many people have abandoned traditional Christmas cards in favor of ecards, emails, video chatting, text messaging and a host of other electronic mediums. However, there is something special about sending and receiving traditional Christmas cards which modern technology cannot replace.

This is the true story of Mary’s Christmas card list. In about 1918 or 19, Samuel and Mary began courting, as they referred to it at the time. In 1919, Samuel proposed to Mary and, to his delight, she accepted. With their betrothal, Mary would inherit a last name, which at the time, they thought was a rather unfortunate pairing with her first name. Several newspaper reporters heard of their upcoming nuptials and the unique name combination and wanted to do a feature story on their marriage.

Embarrassed by the name combination, Mary and Samuel declined their offers and shied away from reporters. On Aug. 24, 1919, Samuel and Mary wed, and she took Samuel’s last name. Practical jokers telephoned Mary at all hours of the night and bombarded her with wise cracks and insults about her name. Some members of the Assembly of God Church in Racine, Wis., her own church congregation, joined in on the fun at Mary’s expense. For a while, Samuel and Mary considered legally changing their last name to Thompson to avoid mockery, but they ultimately decided against it. Mary had to accept her new name. Eventually, Mary’s and Samuel’s embarrassment of her name eased somewhat. In 1936, Mary sent Christmas cards to a few handicapped persons to lift their spirits during the holidays. The recipients of Mary’s good deeds were overjoyed at her act of kindness. Mary signed her unfortunate name to the cards and the recipients were even more delighted. Many of the recipients sent thank you letters to Mary for thinking of them.

The following year, Mary added more names to her Christmas card list. Just as before, she got an overwhelming response. Each year, the number of Christmas cards Mary sent grew exponentially. Mary never expected anything in return for her Christmas cards and always looked forward to sending them out. “If I know I can make a few people smile at Christmas time, then I am more than repaid,” Mary declared. “Tears come to my eyes when I receive letters telling of the happiness that my simple cards bring.”

Over the years, several radio show hosts interviewed Mary about her Christmas card campaign. In 1954, she appeared as a guest on the “Welcome Travelers,” a Chicago based television show. In that same year, Mary was named “Racine’s Mother of the Year.” Multiple national magazines included feature stories about Mary and her lengthy Christmas card list. The increase in publicity resulted in an increase of Christmas card and stamp donations. Various societies around the world provided Mary with the names and addresses of people they thought needed a little Christmas cheer. People from all over the country helped Mary’s Christmas card campaign with donations including civic organizations, manufacturers, scout troops, school children and hundreds of her friends in Racine, Wis.

Many of the donors were or had been recipients of Mary’s Christmas cards and wanted to help Mary give others the same joy they had when they received a card. Each June, Mary began signing cards and addressing envelopes. For her to complete her task, Mary had to address and sign a minimum of 40 cards per day for the six months preceding Christmas. She never allowed anyone else to sign her name or address the envelopes. Her only shortcut was using a rubber stamp to imprint her return address. She sorted and tied the cards in bundles according to states and countries. In mid-December, Samuel happily delivered her avalanche of cards to the Racine post office.

Christmas Cards/Stamps

At the height of her Christmas card campaign, during World War II, Mary added a large number of American soldiers to her list of recipients and sent out over 7,000 Christmas cards. Wounded soldiers in armed forces hospitals were always first on her list. Mary’s was considered the longest Christmas card list in the world. In addition to her Christmas card campaign, Mary still found time each year to prepare her house for Christmas for her five children and their spouses along with her 25 grandchildren.

As Mary grew older, it took more of a toll on her body to ready all of the Christmas cards. “My own difficulties aren’t going to hamper me,” she told reporters. “It really is a relief when the job is over. I always get writer’s cramp in my right arm, neck and back.” Each year until her death, regardless of physical pain or handicap, Mary sent out Christmas cards to every name on her list. Once Mary overcame the embarrassment of her unique name, a name she and Samuel once considered unfortunate, she used it as a way to spread the Christmas spirit. She no longer saw her name as a hindrance, but as a gift.

“I feel that God gave me my name so I can carry out this work. I know how happy an unfortunate person can feel by receiving a friendly card from a stranger, especially one with the name… ‘Mary Christmas.’”

Sources: 1. The Hanford Sentinel (Hanford, California), December 24, 1952, p.21. 2. The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin), September 30, 1959, p.1. 3. Find A Grave. “Samuel Christmas.” Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/26453590/samuel-christmas. 4. Find A Grave. “Mary Christmas.” Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/26453599/mary-christmas.