When I go home to my parents’ house to celebrate Christmas, I first loot the fridge and freezer, and then I locate the basket where my mom keeps all the holiday cards she’s received to-date. I am a sucker for these cards. I think I know more of my parents’ friends through their holiday mailings than I know through live association. I grew up studying the faces of their children in Christmas card photographs, and now that many of these friends are grandparents like my mom, I study the faces of their grandchildren. If my mom receives a mailing without a photo, I usually return it to the basket from whence it came with theatrical disgust. Don’t people know that the whole purpose of holiday cards is to harness the power of the postal service to broadcast the current state of their kids so that other people in random households across the country can delight for a moment in the innocence of children before falling into their seasonal depressions? Does this need spelling out? (Fine, I will spell it out.)
My mom has one friend from Georgia who always mailed her seasons greetings with breathtakingly beautiful, black & white photos of her stunning daughters. (My brothers were especially vocal about how much they appreciated the artistry of these particular shots.) The photos were clearly taken by a professional, and so they stood out from the rest of the cards, which usually featured a photo that some father had barely managed to achieve after balancing his camera on a fencepost, setting up a 10-second timer, dashing toward his tightly-grouped family, and hoping for the best.
My parents didn’t like to be featured in our own family Christmas cards. Instead they’d get creative/sadistic with their children, stacking us on ladder rungs or dispersing us across the branches of a magnolia tree. Any fun family gathering in late fall was liable to be converted into an impromptu Christmas card photo session, so we kids scattered accordingly whenever we saw a camera. But I am certainly glad that we have those pictures now. We might have been artificially posed and genuinely bitter, but dammit we looked good. Or at least together.
I’ve never sent my own holiday card, but it pleases me that my siblings have adopted the tradition. I’ve spent a fortune on magnets trying to keep up with the amount of niece and nephew photos I feel compelled to adhere to my refrigerator door. My mom is the same way. If you give her a photo and it makes it onto the fridge, you know you’re special. She saves a ton of money on electric bills because her food is so well insulated behind years of children’s smiling faces.
Every year the holiday card basket is less full. This makes me sad, and not just because I’m technically in the holiday card business now. People share pictures on Facebook and Instagram. People share pictures on their iPhones. Images are predominantly digital and passed from one cloud to another. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, but I truly appreciate a stamp, an envelope, a brief handwritten note, a pile of photos that I can hold in my hand and compare to last year’s. I have fond memories of my mom and my late father sitting around the card table in the living room with a fire blazing in the fireplace, writing cheerful messages to their friends on the backs of identical photographs. Somewhere out there are people who have known our faces through the years. Somewhere out there are people who have said about us, “That looks like a happy family.”