“Christmas Journey” by local artist Patty Smith marks the latest design in the “Alternative Christmas Cards” program, through which archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services raises funds for its area food pantries. (Patty Smith / Courtesy of Denise Hopkins, Nutritional Development Services)

The Christmas card, which dates back to Victorian England, has a colorful and quirky history (one that actually began with a fellow who didn’t have time to write letters to friends).

Thanks to one Archdiocesan agency, sending holiday greetings can help to brighten the future for those facing food insecurity, while spreading the news of Christ’s birth.

For the 37th year, the Community Food Program of archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services (NDS) is offering its “Alternative Christmas Cards” for sale. The 5 x 7 inch cards, printed on high quality paper, feature 10 different pen-and-ink designs by local artist Patty Smith. Proceeds from the cards will directly benefit NDS’ network of food cupboards throughout the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area.

The project began, fittingly, while retired NDS director Anne Ayella (who now heads up archdiocesan Catholic Relief Services) was on maternity leave with her oldest son.

“I’m no artist, but I drew this sort of sketchy Christmas tree,” said Ayella. “The main idea was that the cards represented a donation towards feeding the hungry.”

A few years later, Ayella tapped her cousin Smith to take over the design responsibilities. Smith, who donates her talents to the effort, had long provided custom art for archdiocesan clergy. With Ayella’s full blessing, she was free to envision the cards as she saw fit.

“She lets the Spirit direct her,” said Ayella. “The only time I specifically requested a design was in 2015 for the World Meeting of Families, when we wanted the Holy Family on the cards.”

The images – which feature scenes from the Nativity narrative, plus angels, animals and Christmas trees – are rotated throughout the years, with new ones coming into circulation and others occasionally retired. Most of the cards include Scripture verses or prayers; all refer to the holiday’s Christian significance.

Customers often have favorite cards that they routinely purchase each year, Ayella said.

This year’s collection features “The Christmas Journey,” an elaborate sketch of an expectant Mary and Joseph en route to Bethlehem.

“Over the years, Patty’s work has become super, super detailed,” Ayella said.

This year’s Alternative Christmas Cards are sold in packs of 10 cards for $15 or 20 cards for $25. Designs can be mixed and matched for each purchase. A monetary amount is noted on each card as a representation of the donation to NDS, which is also a beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal.

To order the cards, contact Denise Hopkins, coordinator of NDS’s Community Food Program, at 215-895-3470 ext. 77823 or at dhopkins@ndsarch.org.