Friday, December 16, 2011

O Christmas card, O Christmas card....

Due to various circumstances -- most of which fall under the category of personal laziness -- I hadn't been to the post office in three consecutive days when my 9-year-old and I finally stopped by yesterday afternoon. Our post office box was packed with envelopes. The two of us unstuffed it piece by piece, hauled the load home, and spent a very pleasant half-hour opening Christmas cards. As I should have realized, if you're going to take a three-day hiaitus from collecting your mail, mid-December is not the optimal time to do it; on a typical day during the holiday season, we receive as much personal mail as we often receive in an entire month or more at other times of year.

But it was worth it, because catching up on the trove of cards that had arrived during that time was so much fun. I know a lot of people don't enjoy Christmas cards as much as I do, but for me it's a hallmark of the season. And even though lots of satirists have fun poking fun at the different strains of holiday greetings, I can only say that I like them all. I like the posed, professionally produced family portraits. I like the funny offbeat candid snapshots of kids running through pumpkin patches or digging sand castles. I like those taken in people's back yards and those taken at the far reaches of the earth. I like seeing what people did in Disney World, at Niagara Falls, on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the Caribbean. I like those that were clearly intended to be Christmas cards as the shot was composed and those that have more of an "I guess this one will do" feel to them.

I like holiday newsletters, too. I don't mind when people go on and on about every twist and turn in their family's year. Perhaps because personal stories and how people tell them are such an integral part of my career, I'm interested not only in the facts people include but the subtext about what they chose to say and why. One of my friends wrote a fairly long newsletter but had exactly one paragraph about each child and one detail amplified in that one paragraph: a daughter learned to drive; a son started working at his school's radio station; another daughter is going to be in a play soon. How did she choose those singular details?, I wondered. Were there other ideas that she cast aside?

A few details that friends have chosen to include in the past struck me as unusual enough that I still remember them years later. One friend broke the news of her divorce, apologizing ahead of time for breaking the unspoken rule of including only good news in Christmas cards. Two different women I know who are both mothers of men in their 20's routinely discuss the goings-on of their sons' girlfriends, which I find a little odd -- these aren't even members of the family. But it's still interesting. One of my husband's childhood friends even once started a Christmas card with "Thank God that for once we don't have to start with the news that Tina is pregnant."

Our own Christmas card situation has me annually tearing my hair out. I decided the first year Rick and I were married to write a 12-stanza poem describing our year. It was a fun way to narrate events, and I discovered that the kind of people who complain in general about holiday newsletters don't seem to mind poems because of the poems' innate tongue-in-cheek quality: we're not boasting about anything, we're just trying to come up with rhyming couplets. After we’d done two years of holiday poems, a friend of my mother very offhandedly told me an anecdote about a young woman she knew who had done the same thing for a few years but then found it too hard to maintain the tradition. Needless to say, I took this as a challenge, and that's the primary reason that our holiday poem continues to exist nineteen years later. Now a small number of our friends even write little rhymes back to us.

In the past, we threw in a photo card as well, assuming that some recipients would read the poem, some would look at the card, and some might do neither. (Or both.) But as home-computer technology has improved, the cost of commercial printing has gone up, and the environmental impact of photographic dyes and materials has come into question, we ceased ordering glossy photos and just started embedding small snapshots into our newsletter.

It's one of those traditions I love for about 11 1/2 months out of the year, and then dread when it's time to start writing. But as with any big writing project I face, the sense of relief I have when it's behind me makes all the stress seem worthwhile. As Holly and I pored over the pile of cards we received yesterday, I thought about how those same people would be receiving ours in another few days. I hope they enjoy our work as much as I've enjoyed theirs. Because every single card I receive means something to me, and I hope it's a tradition that never stops.

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