Return to Sender

It’s an annual tradition observed by many families, and increasingly, one adopted regardless of religion: the Christmas card mass-mailing. The cards vary — some people write pages-long letters detailing the last year of their family’s life while others mass-produce postcards of their children and dogs — but the idea is the same. You take your address book and send a letter to everyone you know, as a way of keeping in touch (to some degree) with everyone you can think of.

In 1974, a guy named Phillip Kunz participated in this holiday endeavor, both as a sender of Christmas cards and as a recipient of them. And his mailman must have thought he was a celebrity or, perhaps, that Kunz had a very, very, very large family, given the extraordinary amount of Christmas cards he received that year. At least two or three cards came every day and on some days, the cards came by the dozen. Kunz appeared to have a lot of people who loved him.

But as it turned out, Kunz didn’t know very many of the people who were sending him season’s greetings. Kunz was a sociology professor at Brigham Young University who was running an experiment on reciprocity, and the cards were coming from unknowing participants in his study.

Kunz’s experiment was pretty straight-forward. He randomly selected the names and addresses of 600 strangers, using a series of local directories as his source information. Then, he bought himself some stationery and some stamps, and wrote out hundreds of hand-written notes featuring pictures of his family, as he told NPR. Each Christmas card was signed either “Phil and Joyce and family” or “Dr. Phil Kunz and family.” Finally, he mailed them all out.

And then, he waited. Despite the fact that the recipients of Kunz’s cards had no idea who he was, many returned the favor anyway. Over the next few weeks, replies came flooding in, over 200 in all.

Most of those, of course, simply responded out of some sense of obligation — no one wants to admit to having forgotten a college friend or overlooked a third cousin once removed. But according to an AP report following up on Kunz’s experiment a year later, many of the cards Kunz received had personalized notes — items such as “we see so little of you anymore” or “we miss your father.”  Apparently, at times, memories are unreliable to the point that they create fictional relationships in order to make the narrative work.

And in some cases, those memories persist — or, at least, Kunz’s placement on various Christmas card lists persisted. Even though Kunz stopped sending cards to his list of strangers after the first year of the endeavor, some of his pen pals continued to reply to his original one. In some cases, Kunz received cards from families fifteen years after running his experiment.

Bonus Fact: The story behind the first Christmas card is pretty boring — an English noble had the idea to send cards to all of his family, colleagues, and contacts. He commissioned an illustrator to pen a picture of his extended family around the table and had just over 2,000 printed up. The idea proved popular — not only did it catch on, but at least one person saved his or her copy of the first Christmas card. You can see it here.

From the ArchivesPost-a-Nut: When you really want to go the extra mile, don’t send a postcard. Send a coconut.

(Not Actually) Related: This has nothing to do with today’s story, but I came across it while searching for “Christmas cards for non-Christians.” Apparently, in 1988, the Topps company (which makes baseball cards, typically) came out with a collectable set of baseball card-like cards for the television sitcom Growing Pains. You can buy a pack and/or see the package artwork (it’s awful) here. There are 18 in stock as of this writing, and feel free to send me one if you’d like. I always loved that show.