This story is over 5 years old.


A Scientific Explanation for Cute, Happy, Lie-Filled Holiday Cards

Ah, the holidays. We're right at the peak of the loveliest season on our calendar, in which families and friends from around the country make the dutiful trek to gather, share gifts and trumped-up stories of their success, eat and drink too much, and...

Ah, the holidays. We’re right at the peak of the loveliest season on our calendar, in which families and friends from around the country make the dutiful trek to gather, share gifts and trumped-up stories of their success, eat and drink too much, and try to pretend for a few more days that they don’t hate each other some perceived slight from a decade ago. It’s a weird time of the year: For every offensive wine cooler-fueled comment from Aunt Mabel, there’s a good-hearted holiday miracle to balance it out.


Examining the roots of holiday culture would take a few books (see this small disturbing report), so let’s instead take a look at a representative object: the holiday card. While I certainly understand the value of sharing family updates and photos, I can’t sort out the impulse to mail out dozens of painfully posed photos and glowing letters about report cards, music awards and AYSO championships to a roster of acquaintances. Surely, then, this type of pithy display of our family life rests in biology.

Communication and signaling in the animal world can usually be broken down into a trio of categories: those aimed at gaining a either a defensive, sexual or cooperative advantage. While you’ve likely detected those impulses in much of the correspondence you read, holiday cards are arguably the most common, and, given the circumstances, the strangest vehicle for written human communication we know.

The animal version of a Christmas sweater

Defense in nature is based on camouflage, strength, smarts or intimidation. The bright Christmas sweaters and toothy grins of holiday photos make me think of the psychedelic coloring of poisonous species. Take the lionfish: It looks like a deranged lunatic for the purpose of signaling to potential predators that it’s massively poisonous. Between the colorful outfits and the darker side hiding behind Whitestrip-polished smiles in any number of suburban families, the warning-signal theory sounds plausible. But even if someone was twisted enough to mail out cards with the sole intent of scaring their friends and family, would anyone ever take that sort of goofy threat seriously?

Meanwhile, sending out a family holiday card for the purpose of gaining new mates sounds a little bit insane, doesn’t it? But think for a moment about how elephant seal mating works: The enormous males battle violently for hours to prove who’s the toughest, strongest and highest-quality mate, who thus scores the largest harem of female mates. Consider it an alpha male harem-building tactic. A guy showing off the success of his family could be considered a similar display of strength, but there are two issues: 1) Human mate selection certainly isn’t based on simply the strength of a male; and, 2) as everyone knows, dads have nothing to with creating holiday cards.

Holiday cards show off how tough you are

The other, potentially more plausible sexual impetus for holiday cards is that there’s no better mating business card than showing off how great your offspring are. It’s a step beyond the type of ostentatious display of resource gathering and survival ability that peacocks and other silly birds possess with their crazy plumages. Rather than showing their potential for being a good mate, holiday card senders are showing actual proof that they can pump out kids. The problem here is that no one trusts any of the crap written in holiday letters anyway, and there’s really no good defense against it. The card’s use as an indicator of mate quality is undermined by cheaters, and is thus basically useless.

Coati tails stick up to keep the group together.

Cooperative communication in the animal world is both verbal, like hyenas yipping to coordinate their hunts, and visual, like the wonderful upright ringed tails of coatis, or the simple wag of a dog’s tail when it senses prey (or, now, treats) nearby. The overarching idea in either case is to organize the group for some collective gain.

At first glance, this seems like the most plausible reasoning for sending out updates to family and friends. It’s networking, which in human and business terms is no different than wolves hunting in a pack. Then again, if the goal of holiday cards is to help a group communicate, the cards would have to elicit a more positive response from its recipients than sarcastic annoyance at how great another family is supposedly doing.

That rub highlights the difficulty in trying to assign strict evolutionary reasons to human culture and behavior. It seems most likely that holiday cards originated as any other family correspondence might: as a way to keep a group together that has a vested interest in itself. But once ego, competitiveness and the vagaries of interpersonal relationships come into play, it becomes nigh-impossible to assign a root biological cause to the behavior. At the very least, if you enjoy a bit of evolutionary speculation with your egg nog, take this away: next time you get a horrific holiday card from someone you don’t particularly care for, remember that if it’s not cooperative, the sender is either trying to sleep with you or kill you.

Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Why We Hate Cheaters, Phonies and Photoshoppers.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter. Have a question? Write Derek at derek(at)

Lead photo via