Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday cards: Who doesn't like photos of their friends' kids?

Christopher Muther wrote this essay in today’s Boston Globe stating an opinion that was new to me: how he emphatically does not enjoy seeing photos of his friends’ children (or his friends themselves) on their Christmas cards. I understand that holiday cards in general have their detractors. There are the proponents of the voluntary simplicity movement who take the stance that composing, addressing and sending cards is one task a frazzled merrymaker could easily bypass; more importantly, there is the undeniable reality that the Christmas card tradition generates massive amounts of paper, ink, dye and other environmentally problematic substances.

Nonetheless, if you’ve make the personal choice that cards will be part of your holiday traditions, I can’t imagine anything I’d rather see than a photo of the sender’s children.

Among my cohort of parents, I find the bigger question is whether to include ourselves in the photos. My vote is yes. We have too many acquaintances whom we don’t get together with nearly enough, and I like to see how my friends are changing and aging just as much as I like to see what their kids look like from year to year (though my reason for wanting to see this might be different). On the other hand, it’s been ages since I practiced what I preached. The last time my husband and I appeared in our own Christmas card picture was the year before our second child was born. Back then it seemed to make sense for reasons of visual (and perhaps also symbolic) balance to have the photo include one mom, one dad, one child and one dog. Since my daughter’s birth, the card has featured the two kids. After passing 40, I found I generally wasn’t feeling all that photogenic anymore.

Not only am I different from Christopher Muther in that I love seeing photos of my friends’ kids but I also relish the variety in tastes that people display as far as what kind of photo they use. How are the kids dressed? How are they posed? What’s the setting? Was it an arranged photo shoot specifically for the purposes of this card, or did the parents just go back through their year of photos and pick out their favorite candid from a family vacation or weekend excursion? What’s their attitude toward seasonality: should a Christmas card have snow and evergreen boughs in the background, or is a shot of the kids at the beach or wearing Halloween costumes just as acceptable?

As for my family, our approach has been to set up a quick informal photo shoot a few weeks before Christmas. When possible, I wait for the first snow, because I like outdoor scenes but early December without snow on the ground is not a particularly beautiful time here; the scenery tends to have a lot of mud-brown and grayish overtones even on a sunny day. Since we live on a farm, for the past two years our picture has included a cow or two, which is a goofy but fun way of distinguishing our photo from the dozens of others like it that each of our friends probably receives. In fact, I think we’re the only people we know who usually include cows in our Christmas card photo. Our results are adequate from an aesthetic standpoint: not as picture-perfect as our friends who go in for professional photo shoots, but better than the year that we ran out of time and simply dropped ourselves into a quick photo-ready pose before leaving the house to attend a Christmas party. (Unfortunately, we neglected to give much thought to background. “Nice picture of your humidifier!” my father commented that year. That might be why now I always go for outdoor shots.)

Actually, the most inspiring idea I’ve had about Christmas cards is what to do with them after Christmas. Each year I buy a mini photo album, the kind that holds just one 4x6 per page, and use it exclusively for holiday card photos that people send us. When the kids were little, they had a great time flipping through the albums to see whom they recognized, and they still enjoy glancing through the albums to find long-outdated photos of their friends.

And as for our friends and relatives who prefer etchings of winter scenes or religious imagery on their Christmas cards, we understand that choice as well. Any card is a good card, from my perspective. Even electronic cards are fine. It’s December, and one of my favorite parts of the holiday season is hearing from friends: via photo, newsletter, or simply a word or two of greeting above their signature.

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