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A Santa or a manger scene? // The Christmas card dilemma

Walk into any card store this Christmas and you'll find a bit of everything.

Warm, fuzzy cards with teddy bears gush words of love. Corny cards with reindeer and Santas make light of the holidays. Serious religious cards with manger scenes and Bible verses recall the "reason for the season."

How do you choose?

If it's a card for a business client, should it feature a picture of Jesus or of Santa _ or just a wish for a prosperous 1996?

If it's a personal card, should you choose it with your beliefs in mind _ or those of the friend or relative receiving it?

What about cards for non-Christians, or for those who dismisses Christmas as so much tacky commercialism?

"I write about it in all my books," manners columnist Letitia Baldrige says of the Yuletide etiquette dilemma.

One thing is certain, Baldrige says. "You do not send a Madonna scene, nativity scenes, even anything that says the word Christmas, to your Jewish friends or your . . . Muslim friends. You just send holiday greetings."

Greeting-card companies, aware that Christmas is not a one-size-fits-all holiday, are capitalizing on the confusion, providing consumers with a seemingly endless range of choices for personal expression.

There are cards depicting Santas dazed by smelly Christmas stockings, cards with birds and bunnies that stress the need for open hearts, cards for ethnic groups, cards addressed to "Mom and Dad," "Sis," "Brother" and simply "Two Special People" _ in other words, cards that reflect the panoply of taste and mores of America's purchasing public.

"The variety is there to mirror the great religious, social, economic diversity of the country," said Leigh Eric Schmidt, a Princeton University associate professor of religion and author of Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.

Given the nation's religious diversity _ and the seemingly limitless range of choices in cards _ deciding what Yuletide message is appropriate for business clients and personal friends can be vexing.

Kathy Compton, public affairs director for the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management, is typical of those who walk an etiquette tightrope at work and home.

This year, her professional organization, which serves personnel managers, opted for a generic message thanking clients for their "continued partnership" and wishing them happy holidays. The card, modeled after the organization's new Internet home page, includes an accent of snowflakes.

"We're just trying to be globally conscious of the season and not focus on one particular group," Compton says.

She dismisses a suggestion from etiquette maven Baldrige that businesses send two sets of cards _ religious and non-religious _ depending on the spiritual inclination of the client.

"What are you going to do, ask them?" Compton says. "You just never know who you're sending your cards to."

Compton has adopted the inclusive approach for her private Yuletide greetings. Though she describes herself as "very religious," she chose a card this year with a village scene that doesn't mention the word Christmas. That way, she says, she can send the card to all her friends _ Christians, Jews and Buddhists.

It's an approach not everyone likes.

As part of its 7-year-old "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's fraternal organization, has been encouraging people to send Christmas cards that put the Christ back in Christmas.

"Fewer and fewer religious cards and more and more cutesy messages were being made available to the general public _ cats and dogs and Christmas trees and Santa Claus," says Bob Canfield, the Knights of Columbus' Virginia campaign chairman.

The aim, Canfield says, is to counter the increasing secularization of Christmas. "We are in fact celebrating on that day the commemoration of the birth of Christ and the origin of our religion," he says.

Canfield says he isn't trying to force anyone to believe as he does. But card-giving is a chance to share one's faith in a "positive" way, he says.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Canfield says.

With Yuletide etiquette so tricky, one Christian card company has taken the practical path: It makes cards with religious and non-religious themes, adding a Bible quote to both.

Kay Emery, consumer advertising manager for DaySpring Cards, based in Siloam Springs, Ark., says her company offers Christmas messages ranging from "pretty heavy" to "light and simple."

For example, one card features a silhouetted manger scene with the words "Jesus was not just a baby born in a stable. . . . He is a living Savior residing in our hearts!"

But there's also a card that portrays a dog singing carols, carrying presents and baking cookies. Its message: "Remember, 'tis the season to be jolly . . . at least until those credit card bills start coming in!"