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S OMETIMES it seems as though holiday cards and letters may be going out of style. You hear complaints about the chore of writing through the yearly card list. Or that the whole process has become too commercial and business-oriented, especially if the cards go out in neat stacks but without a single hand-written personal message.

Even well-meaning groups occasionally urge their members to sign a joint card to be sent to mutual friends, with the savings attained from not buying individual cards donated to some worthy cause.

Yet for all of that, cards and letters aren't likely to vanish from the holiday scene. And for a very fundamental reason: They serve real human needs. For millions, they're not mere decorations.

Most conspicuously, the cards simply wish a friend a joyous holiday and a prosperous and healthy new year.

But they serve another important function as well. They knit together a tenuous network that links us today to the past and the different lives we have lived.

Think of the cards and notes you send out and receive this time of year. How many revive fading memories of times gone
by, of college days, perhaps, or a trip to Europe years ago?

Even if you write only once a year, the season of Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's offers a reason to do it then. You need no other reason. The holidays offer an opportunity to bring friends up to date on what has happened in the past 12 months: a new marriage, a new baby, a great vacation or new job, a welcome retirement.

Over the years, our lives mingle with and then separate from others. We drift together, then apart. Season's greetings keep us in touch with friends from former neighborhoods, old schools, ex-jobs that still imprint themselves on our lives.

These annual cards and letters help us say that the significance of our past is not lost and forgotten. On the contrary, they reaffirm that it is remembered and treasured.

These once-a-year cards and letters often feed embers, however faint, from days and friendships that still glow in the warmth of the season.

Sentimental? Maybe. But they nourish a tradition of lingered friendships worth keeping.

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