Keeping the Christmas Card Traditon Alive in China: A Cautionary Tale

For those of you still struggling to get Christmas cards out to friends and family this year, here’s something to give you hope…or at the very least give you a laugh. It’s long, but I like to think the entertainment value is worth the read.

Side note: The bookstore was actually really cool, I will definitely be back to look for something other than cards in the future.
It started off as a normal day, I sent my Chinese teacher a WeChat and asked if she knew a place I could find cards, maybe even Christmas cards. She responded that book stores or markets would have cards and maybe I could try a place nearby. At this time my expectations were sufficiently low: maybe I could find a cool Chinese stationary set or other such cards. I decided I did not have to specifically find cards of the Christmas variety since China is notoriously not-so-keen on that whole religion thing. The bookstore nearby has some pretty cool cards, but sorry to those of you on my card list as these cards A.) cost way too much for the volume I planned on sending and B.) did not exist in a sufficient enough quantity had I wanted to spend a small fortune on this project. I decided I would continue looking the next weekend as it was only late November at this point. I had started looking around early because of mail associated delays that are to be expected when sending things half way around the world. I checked a few more places the following week with similar results. The closest I came were tiny Christmas cards at the expensive western grocery store that I didn’t even like all that well, but by then I was starting to run out of time. In a moment of madness I decide to embarked on an adventure I would consider “no big deal” at home: making my own!


Step 1: Design said Christmas Card

Not a problem, I’ve got loads of pictures from our travels this year, and a slew of Adobe products I can get to help me with that. I think maybe I spent ~2 hours choosing pictures, writing up a nice little story, and trying to format everything so it was more or less centered the same. The plan was going to be print double sided on normal letter sized paper, cut it out at home with a paper cutter (this meant I could make the bleed section overlarge and just trim it down because I had final control over the dimensions!), find envelopes, address them, and mail them. Fortunately I had the foresight to have a friend bring me a load of stamps from the US this fall as I am conveniently able to send any paper mail I like through interoffice mail and they will post it for me in the US. Saving some money (and time) on postage is always a bonus, right?

Look, I can make card art!
Step 2: Locate a Print Shop

At home I would just run to the nearest office store (~5 minute drive or so) with my files and have them print everything out for me. I already have my own paper and their industrial strength equipment will print nicer than my 8.5-year old ink jet from college. I also prefer to avoid using our copy machine at work for this since the volume I am printing is, again, somewhat significant. Armed with my paper and digital files I head to a copy place my driver knows of and we go in to see if they will print it for us. I hand over the digital files, point them out on the flash drive, and my driver tries to communicate that I want to print on the paper I have just handed over to the copy place worker. 20 minutes later we are told that the paper is too small and they offer me a notepad made of scrap paper. I am thinking they want me to write something on it, but how is writing something going to help when I can barely speak Chinese…I honestly have no idea what they expect me to do with it, so I say, “that’s ok, I can do this at home if I have to” and we leave. I know letter paper is slightly smaller than their standard A3 or A4 sizes, but it is not so small they cannot print on it in China, right? Maybe this is a blessing in disguise as my trusty proofreader has missed the fact that I put 2016 instead of 2015 on the front of the card. I am spared the embarrassment of not remembering what year it is (for now). I am too discouraged to carry on that evening, so I have my driver take me home and I bang out some frustration on my newest stress relief device: a keyboard.

Attempt two comes to us via our Chinese teachers recommendation of a completely different copy place ~15 minutes drive away. This time I go in without my driver to try to make cards appear in my hands from the electronic copy I have brought with me. My first question of “do you speak English?” is met with a firm no and somehow I am able to understand enough to realize he is saying my paper is too small. I am ready to give up again when he hands me that same strange notepad and then I am saved by a girl standing by the counter waiting to pay for her order. She explains my paper is too small, but I can pick any of the paper types in the stack and they will print it on that for me. VICTORY (I am ready to shout). I quickly pick a nice simple paper and off they go to make my copies. While we are waiting to see the results of this new turn of events we start chatting and my new translator friend tells me she is going to the US soon to visit her sister in Indianapolis, IN. I tell her I hope it is not too cold this time of year and that she should go back in the summer sometime. The copy person returns soon, slightly disappointed, and hands me the perfectly centered cards tiled on a large piece of paper. He tries to tell me the color is bad and the centering is not quite right. Meanwhile I am thinking, this will make cutting everything out really easy! My new translator friend tells me that if I can pick it up tomorrow then it will be much better, I agree and arrange to have my driver pick it up the next day while I am at work. (He’s already driving to Shanghai to pick up David’s new guitar, so he might as well grab that on the way back.)

Step 3: Find Envelopes Using the Draft Copy of my Cards from the Print Shop to Make Sure I Get the Right Size

I ask my driver where we can get envelopes, he says wait a minute and runs off leaving me in the car. One minute later he returns with 3 different sizes and I realize I do not know the US Postal System requirements for using my regular “first class” stamps as everything has to be a different size here. (Metric system vs English I think, silly SI units messing me up…) I also do not want to risk being wrong at this point, so I thank him and say I need to look up the requirements. I suggest we go to the grocery store and I can look after I find the requirements. I need to get something from there anyway, surely they  have envelopes. I stand corrected, they do not have envelopes, but now they have Christmas-ey cards! Seriously? This was about the last thing I needed to see…a giant display of fun Chinese-ey festive new years cards.

They were so festive I bought a few.
I hold a short therapy session with a snickers bar and then am back in action. I am still high off finding a copy place that can do what I need them to do, life is glorious. Then BAM (no that is not our car getting hit in the slightly erratic traffic around here), suddenly I’ve remembered where I can find envelopes! I found this fun office supply store right across from the bookstore and my aimlessly wandering through the store one day has finally paid off because I know they have envelopes! I find the ones that almost perfectly match the size of my card, buy a casual 120 of them, and leave. Now we are making progress! (Yes, I have just used far too many exclamation points in one paragraph, just be glad the sentences did not come out in all caps…)

Who doesn’t love pastel colored “A6” envelopes that my computer seems to think are really B6…

I think this is the right envelope size and orientation? Oh well, let’s find out!
Step 4: Save Time and Address Envelopes Via Mail Merge and my Home Printer


I have used mail merge plenty of times, so the set-up is not too bad, I just have to look up a quick refresher because the envelope sizes are weird. A few minutes later and I have my spreadsheet loaded into the template and I am ready to start printing! The first envelope prints upside down, I rotate it around and find the right orientation, a few more changes and I have it figured out. The next envelope goes in and gets eaten by the printer…The carriage jammed, presumably because the envelopes have wavy edges on them due to their being really thin. Hopefully this is a one time deal. And again. Great at this rate I will have no green envelopes left (the only color I really wanted to get).

The printer was hungry, and seems to have something against green envelopes. Upon further investigation I still have no idea why this is the case.
I stay up way to late fighting the printer every 5 or so envelopes, turning it off and back on again, but I have successfully addressed and stamped all the envelopes. All I have to do is get the cards tomorrow, cut them out, and seal the envelopes!


Step 5: Cut out the Cards

The print shop has done this for me, and perfectly formatted the edges to get rid of my laziness. This is truly a wonderful day.

I wondered when I placed the order why they did not ask for my name and find out from my driver after he picks it up that it says “foreigner” (老外/laowai) on it in Chinese. Apparently things like me do not happen to copy places in China frequently…

Pretty cards, all cut out for me. We will overlook the fact that they printed about 40 too many…
Step 6: Insert the Cards into the Envelopes

Shit. The cards are too big. Somewhere in the editing process the card has increased ~15% in size, and will not fit in the perfectly sized envelope I have found, addressed, and stamped. I have two choices: Cut the card down, or re-do the envelopes. Option three (fold the card in half) is not even an option because I spent so much time trying to make the cards appear into being that we are just not going to go there…Anyway, lest I chop off part of David’s head and and pretty little lights I have so artfully added to the back, I opt for new envelopes. I call Jacky and we go back to the same store which also has larger envelopes. My poor driver has become complicit in this shady activity I have indulged in. It is not really shady, but I feel that it might as well be at this point.

XMAS size
What happens if I cut the card down to fit the small envelope. Bye bye David’s head and my pretty lights, and possibly the first word of every sentence if I mess it up.
Step 7: Re-do the Envelope Addresses and Try to Recover the Stamps

Operation get the stamps back started off as one might expect, some cursing, ripping of paper, and praying that the sticker adhesive would hold for one more go. If anyone does not get their card this year, I am sorry. It is because the stamp fell off, not because I got your address wrong or you forgot to send me your new address when you moved. It is all the stamps fault, remember that.

Captain stamp removal in action.
Ultimately this operation was 100% successful, which was good, because Charlie Brown stamps are just too cool not to be this years postage.

Guess which one is my favorite and you will win a prize. No, I do not know what that prize is yet.
Printer issues ensued as before and it probably took me twice as long as it should have to print all the addresses, but I have prevailed. This time the pink envelopes were the only ones to make it through the ravenous printer unscathed.

The printer decided to be cheeky and print a calibration sheet on one of the pink ones though…so I guess in the end it was pretty useless to me even though it was not chewed up like some of the rest.
Step 8: Add Cards to Envelopes and Seal

One of the things I found to be different here in China is the fact that their postage does not come with adhesive on the back, nor do their envelopes have a spit activated adhesive strip on them. Because of this I had equipped myself immediately after moving with the weapon of a 3 year old – a glue stick. In retrospect I was actually pleased to use glue instead of my tongue to get all this mail put together.

Ready to go to work and be shipped off to the good ole’ U.S. of A.
And that, my friends, is how you make Christmas cards in China.

If any of you would like a card this holiday season (Chinese or of my homemade variety) send me your address and I will mail one to you! As previously mentioned, the copy shop gave me around 40 extra and I guarantee you will probably receive it by March at the latest. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Keeping the Christmas Card Traditon Alive in China: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Just know you are much better than your Grandmother, who has not even addressed hers all yet. I am struggling with the letter. But will address them by hand as I don’t want to go thru
    all you went thru. My printer and I have an on and off relationship also. It is so kind of you to go through all that trouble to send the cards. I love hearing from old friends at Christmas
    time. Have a Merry Christmas as I am afraid your card will be late. Love you…G’ma Lou


    1. Usually I just do labels, those are super quick (mom could show you how that’s done), but finding labels here is also a struggle…the only place I know of that has them if a ways away.


  2. Your story was a wonderful Cristmas gift to me. Experiences, even those of the vicarious nature, are the best!!!!

    Happiest of holidays to you, David, and your furry children!uch love from Michigan!!


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