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For This Holiday, Religious Themes Are in the Cards

Times Staff Writer

As Christmas approached, Dori Larsuel of Altadena studied the racks devoted to religious cards at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Her hand hovered over a card that showed one of the three kings riding his camel under the Christmas star and another with a gilt border like that of a medieval illuminated manuscript. She scanned the racks for cards featuring angels.

Larsuel, a kindergarten teacher and a Christian, sends individual Christmas cards to a dozen of her closest friends and family each year, in addition to the photo card of her family that goes to everyone. She said it is easy this time of year to get caught up in all that needs to be done and to forget what Christmas is about.

So she carefully chooses cards that reflect her belief that “you need to have hope that things will get better.... You need to have faith. You need to have some spiritual connection that binds you when things are difficult.”

According to the Greeting Card Assn., a trade group, about 30% of customers choose Christmas cards with religious messages. That has been rising since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks four years ago, companies and shops report.

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“We’ve seen an uptick in the cards that are overtly religious, that might have a Nativity scene or biblical verse,” said Deidre Parkes, a spokeswoman for Hallmark, the largest card publisher in the U.S.

The war in Iraq and other world events have influenced customers’ choices in cards this year, according to Isabel Loriente, merchandise manager of the gift shop at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

“People are looking for more heartfelt sentiment, more about peace both in the world and personally,” she said. “Not that there is anything wrong with a ‘Merry Christmas,’ but the cards I see people moving towards are not as frivolous.”

Shoppers at the Roman Catholic cathedral -- who include many non-Catholics -- also seem to be passing up cards decorated with candy canes and nostalgic Americana in favor of direct religious messages and imagery.

“They see the secularization of Christmas and understand that component but also want to confirm the religious identity of Christmas,” Loriente said.

The shop’s best-selling card has a cover photo taken by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the statuary Nativity scene on the cathedral grounds. Inside, it reads: “May the gift of Christ’s love and peace bring you joy this Christmas and throughout the New Year.”

This year, whether people are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, they can choose from a greater variety of cards. For example, there are “contemporary Christian” cards for those who prefer a more modern idiom than that of the King James Bible.

For Hanukkah, the big trend is humor, according to Pam Fink of American Greetings, a leading maker of greeting cards based in Cleveland. Forty-five percent of the company’s Hanukkah cards are humorous, said Fink, who helps create the cards for the Jewish market.

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An observant Jew, Fink points to such gently funny cards as one showing three snowmen, two in top hats, one wearing a yarmulke. Her four children, who attend Jewish day schools, came up with that idea, she said.

Fink speculates that chuckle-inducing cards are popular with Jewish buyers because Hanukkah is one of Judaism’s “more light-hearted holidays.” It marks a serious event, the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees overthrew their Hellenistic Syrian oppressors about 165 BC. But Hanukkah lacks “the solemnity of the Jewish New Year, which is very introspective ... and it’s not as religious as Passover,” Fink said.

Even as the number of comic cards has increased, American Greetings has become more responsive to the sensibilities of observant Jews, Fink said. In the mid-1980s, the company began using a second spelling of Hanukkah. Some of its cards now wish recipients a “Happy Chanukah” -- a spelling that better reflects the guttural sound of the word’s first letter in Hebrew.

American Greetings’ officials say the company has increased its individual cards with religious themes 20% over the last three years.

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Nicole Fraser, a senior creative consultant at the company who specializes in Christian cards, said she tries to imagine the response of someone reading a card she has written.

“Religious cards are so personal. If it doesn’t sound authentic and ring true for them, they’re not going to send it,” she said.

Contemporary Christian cards are among her favorites. The language inside is much more conversational than that of traditional cards that tend to employ the rhythms and rhymes of time-honored hymns. The fronts almost always include a Bible verse, but the message has the colloquial quality of contemporary worship services.

The look is different too, Fraser said. Manger scenes reminiscent of the Old Masters are out. There may be angels, the Magi and Nativity scenes, but the artistic techniques are more contemporary, including collage and watercolor.

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Fraser describes herself as a “spiritual journeyer.” She was raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But she visited many different churches as a child when her father, George Plagenz, was religion editor of the Cleveland Press.

Fraser said she continues to visit various churches, looking both for spiritual sustenance and professional material. During the week before Christmas, she plans to slip into back pews for some “respectful eavesdropping.”

“That’s how I fill my tank,” she said.

Mixed-faith cards are another major trend, reflecting the large number of Christian/Jewish families in the nation. Some of these combine Christmas trees and menorahs or Christmas-tree ornaments and dreidels and carry best wishes at this “beautiful season.” Some are humorous, like the card from NobleWorks that shows two freeway offramps, one marked “Jews Who Buy Christmas Trees,” the other “Christians Who Think Hanukkah Is a Major Holiday.”

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Don Gomertz, chief executive of Chrismukkah.com, argues that it is better to celebrate both religious traditions than try to deny them with a generic card.

Last year, his Bozeman, Mont.-based company shipped 30,000 interfaith cards. This year, he expects to ship 90,000. His best-selling card is one that shows bagels topped with cream cheese and holly and offers “Good Cheer with a Schmear.”

Chrismukkah is a metaphor for people of different backgrounds finding common ground, said Gomertz, who is Jewish, and whose wife, Michelle, is the daughter of a United Church of Christ minister. “We don’t advocate blending the holidays in the religious sense,” Gomertz said.

Meanwhile, at Vroman’s in Pasadena, Larsuel said the time she spends picking Christmas cards is well worth it. “I think most people read cards and the sentiment sticks with you,” she said. “Sometimes a card is all someone needs to change their day or their mood.”

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