I am one of three people in this particular solar system who still send Christmas cards by post. The other two are 97-year-old female twins who never married and live in rural Wisconsin in the house they were born in.
I am an anachronism. And happy to be. In fact, my Christmas card writing remains a treasured ritual of mine, despite the inordinate amount of time and effort it takes, ranking right up there with baking my lovely Scottish mother's recipe for brown sugar shortbread in rounds.
The tradition has its defined tent pegs. It doesn't feel absolutely right unless I follow certain carefully-prescribed steps. Chalk it up to my heightened sense of occasion.
First, I prepare hot chocolate. I cannot begin addressing the first blank envelope without a mug of this at my side. And not from a package. Please! I am talking real hot chocolate made with whole milk and premium cocoa powder, brought to a boil on the stove using a timer, with a pinch of salt tossed in for flavor. (Try it!)
Next, I put on my three most-beloved holiday music CDs, featuring songs no one wants to admit to owning. Top of my list? Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's Once Upon a Christmas, with corny, wonderful tunes like "Hard Candy Christmas."
Second CD is André Gagnon's Christmas Album. (Remember when they were called "albums"?) It's simply not Christmas until I hear Gagnon's transcendent piano playing wafting through my rooms.
Third comes a sublime mix of tunes, some obscure, all ridiculously sentimental. Among them, Lee Ann Womack's "The Season for Romance," Kenny Loggins' "On Christmas Morning," and Joni Mitchell's "River."
It's coming on Christmas. They're cutting down trees. They're putting up reindeer. And singing songs of joy and peace...
Are you singing it yet?
With music as background, I clear my desk and begin arranging my supplies in an assembly line. Out first come my Sharpie Ultra-Fine Markers lined up in red, blue and green (the 0.7 mm nib is a must), followed by seasonally-inspired postage stamps, sparkle glue, return address labels, again, appropriately emblazoned, and colorful stickers.
Yes, I said stickers. And no, I am not a nursery school teacher.
Over the years I've gone several routes with my Christmas cards: I have bought them pre-packaged at the mall, ordered them online, and from time to time made my very own from scratch. One particularly energetic year I went to a decrepit paper warehouse down on the lakeshore and bought several poster-sized sheets of thick, heavily textured cream-colored vellum. With just the right knife I sliced across my penciled lines to create the cards, all with one classic ragged edge.
However they come to be, I set out to make each greeting an event unto itself, a distinctly personal missive for everyone on my list. I include my own salutations, a favorite seasonal quote, and occasionally a copy of a favorite New Yorker cartoon, Christmas-themed of course.
Among the funniest of these shows two little girls chatting on a park bench. One says to the other: "I like the Easter Bunny: I find him less judgmental than Santa."
Another pictures Santa Claus stretched out on a psychiatrist's couch. He looks troubled. In the caption he is saying to the doctor: "Sometimes I don't read my mail."
Once the cards are assembled, out comes the pièce de résistance: my sealing wax kit with my short, fat sticks of gold wax and Great Gatsby-style brass monogram stamp.
I'm not the first to go to such trouble. Sealing letters this way is a 600-year tradition, one that secured the confidentiality of important dispatches. A broken seal implied broken trust. No one of integrity would dream of tampering with the wax emblem.
It is decadent and fun stamping my letter with a flourish on the back of each envelope. The heated dripping wax is unpredictable, granted, and the results vary wildly, but the imperfection is a large part of its charm, I think. My letter "M" in gold adds the final touch of elegance and tradition to my greeting.
Who does not adore receiving a big red envelope in the mail the week before Christmas, hand-addressed to them and embellished within an inch of its life?
And I love doing it.
Like Kenny and Dolly, it is the perfect pairing.