Today I finished our annual Christmas card. This is no small task. It involves picking out just the right design, choosing an array of photos that gives recipients a taste of what we did with our 360-odd days, and drafting a concise, witty and informative note that doesn't veer into irritating. I look forward to doing it every year, although by the time I'm done editing and finalizing the photos, I usually need a drink. This year, I'm happy to say, the wine stayed corked. It helps that I'm doing an itty bitty card and space is at a premium. Those of you who have received our lengthier notes can relax now. This one will take you all of 30 seconds to read, but you may need a magnifying glass.
My friend K doesn't understand why people do holiday cards. "Isn't that what Facebook is for?" she asked this morning as we walked the dogs. "I mean, I understood Christmas cards before Facebook and the Internet, but now isn't the whole thing just a little... outdated?"
Sigh. I'm always one step behind the cool kids. I still put two spaces after the end of a sentence and haven't figured out Instagram. It never occurred to me that people think Christmas cards are outdated. Have I turned into the weird great-aunt who insists on giving you doilies and who smells like peppermint and moth balls? So be it. I embrace my outmodedness. I love getting holiday cards and stringing them in our hallway. I want to see pictures of your vacations and hear all about your kids' successes -- really! Write me a two-page note with professional photos you had taken during your month-long tour of Australia. I will give them a place of pride. Of course, when the holidays are over, Little Dude and I will cut them up for art projects (sorry), but do not let that stop you. Being added to a kindergartner's collage is the first step to immortality. Environment be damned -- I want my paper manifestation of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza spirit.
I told K as much.
She wasn't done, though. "Another thing," she said. "No one tells the truth. Christmas cards are filled with happy shiny people, but life isn't always great. Why doesn't everyone tell it like it is instead of making everything seem perfect?"
What? I could write a Christmas card that reflected the total, unvarnished truth of the past year, but I guarantee you, no one, not even me, would want to read it. Not because my life is bad (or worse yet, boring), but because that's not what holiday cards are for. I don't write an end of the year note to give people an intimate look into the minutiae of my life with its fights and struggles and disappointments. That's what phone calls with old friends or snarky Facebook posts are for, right? There are places where we can share our darkest selves and mundane lives; the holiday card is not one of them. That said, the absence of pimples and arguments doesn't make holiday cards a lie. It doesn't make them phony or false. I think it makes them the truest reflection of the season.
I am generally a fill-me-up-with-sugar-and-carols-and-festive-lights-but-leave-the-God-out-of-it heathen, but even for me, the holidays are about magic and miracles and love and renewal. They are a time of comfort, festivities, family and joy. The end of the year gives me the chance to consider my good fortune and to hope for fewer struggles and greater compassion in the new year. December is my time of gratitude and contemplation and peace. A holiday card focuses me on that. It is a snapshot of the year and a dream catcher on card stock. It isn't perfection -- it's reality and aspiration rolled into one.
So when I go through the pictures of the past 12 months, I don't spend all my time choosing the most flattering, although I avoid ones where someone looks possessed, which is trickier than you think. I try to pick a group that reminds me of the core of our year -- that illustrates the things that mattered to each of us, the choices we made, the moments we'd remember even if they weren't captured on film. When I write our family note, I'm not showing off or bragging or making us look good -- just trying to make us look sane takes enough effort. I am trying to relive our happiest moments, to share a life I feel lucky to have with those who help make it what it is. I subtly remind distant relatives how old the kids are and where we live because sometimes those things slip. I include job changes, sports achievements, new additions (this year we've added a 12-week-old puppy to the general holiday chaos -- fingers crossed Santa will bring us some wee-wee pads and a new rug) and offer an open invitation to visit. I'm going for the general tenor of the year -- not the minor annoyances or daily grind. If something negative really matters, I include it. If it doesn't, I remind myself that this too shall pass (and probably already has). Some might call it phony, but I don't agree. There's a difference between simplicity and duplicity.
In the end, maybe it is an archaic tradition, this distilling 365 days into a paragraph that fits on the back of a photo card. In a world of hyper-connected people who can share every moment in an instant, maybe holiday cards are a useless remnant from a different time. Perhaps they aren't the truest description of the ups and downs of our lives. Maybe. Even so, it's a tradition I'm keeping.