Politics & Policy

The Great Autumn Question

Are Christmas cards for showing off the family?

I’m in my 40s now–very early 40s, mind you–and I’m starting to ponder the existential questions that plague middle-aged women in the wee, cold hours before the cat wants out.

Questions like: If I die tonight, will my mother know that I loved her? If I am left vegetative in a fiery car crash caused by my husband’s bad driving, would I want to be starved to death? And, most pressing at this time of year: Is it time to chuck the children’s picture on the family Christmas cards?

This, sadly, is the sort of thing that modern-day, college-educated mothers obsess over each fall when the temperatures plunge. Christmas cards: Do we show off our children, or not?

It is a despicable custom, this business of dressing young children in red and green, accessorizing them with Santa hats and snippets of mistletoe and other festive accoutrements, and then posing them to fit the vertical or horizontal slots on the cards we’ve already bought.

“Cards” is a little generous. They’re actually just “photo holders.” They are designed to inflict pictures of our offspring on people who don’t really need or want the images. If they did, we’d be giving them a 5×7 in a tasteful silver-plated frame. Instead, they get a card that they’ll feel guilty about throwing away later.

It is a contemptible custom, indeed, and yet one that I have practiced for close to a decade. Our first such card–shot when Mencken was nearly two, and Alexandra was three months old–shows our sleep-deprived quartet in front of an misshapen Christmas tree that is now immortalized for posterity, but would have been better off forgotten. The next year, we are merrily seated beside a paper Christmas tree at the Sears portrait studio, by a “window” that reveals, oh, three or four feet of snow. This card was mailed, with no acknowledged irony, from South Carolina, where the one time it snowed at Christmas, you could still see more grass on the ground than snow.

The only thing more boring than looking at someone’s family Christmas cards must be to have someone describe them to you, so I’ll stop there. But know this: In subsequent years, there were more children, more angst, less Sears. In more than one card, someone was crying real tears.

From Dante to Maslow, everything in life has stages, and family-portrait Christmas cards do, too. This is the pecking order:

Stage 1: The card for people who are cheap or inexperienced. Picture shot in front of “roaring fire” or “snow-covered mountain” in a backroom at Sears. Picture is printed on flimsy rectangular card, along with name of child and parents, along with seasonal bromides that take up lots of space, so there’s no need to waste time with a pen. We did this, once. The picture may turn up years from now in some rude Enquirer exposé.

Stage 2: Card for creative, college-educated, multiparas with too much time on their hands. Photo shot by frustrated father while mother barks instructions behind him. Developed in hundreds at the one-hour photo, then inserted into cardholders chosen to match color of children’s clothing.

Stage 3: Card for snobs. (Apologies to Paul and Karen, who were, before today, among my husband’s dearest friends.) Picture of children clad in velvet and silk, shot by professional photographer in studio that doesn’t also sell gas grills. Last year, we received one of these with the photograph covered by a wispy sheet of tissue, the kind that covers expensive typography on wedding invitations. My friends and I disdain these, but truth be told, we’d be sending them, too, if only we had the money.

Now, to be kind–and to justify my past bad behavior–let’s admit that there are valid reasons that this annoying custom began and remains with us, perpetuated each year by a new, eager class of first-time parents. Many people do want to see pictures of our children every year, to see how much they’ve grown, how their previously blonde hair has darkened, and if the children are approaching ages where they can stop sending them gifts. But most of these people are family members. The rest of us would really rather receive a Christmas card adorned with a Rembrandt Madonna or maybe a Far Side joke.

And, truth is, in my advanced maternal age, the hubris is beginning to trouble me. It looks like we’re all showing off.

For years now, my girlfriends and I have evaluated our family Christmas cards with the intensity of an Olympic judging panel. We admire the good ones and pooh-pooh the bad, occasionally sounding more like shrill cats than middle-aged mothers. We save the cards, of course, so that each December, we can line up any given family’s Christmas-card history like a poker player laying down a good hand.

There’s one lineup that’s giving us trouble. It’s the assortment of cards sent by wealthy friends who have one child, a girl. The girl, like her parents, is quite attractive, and made for some cute cards in her early years, but she’s now getting a bit long in the tooth for a Christmas card. The last couple of cards have resembled a photo shoot for Seventeen magazine, and there will come a time–in fact, it may already have passed–when, with a little more leg and a little less fabric, the family Christmas card could be a Cosmo cover, obscured by brown paper at Wal-Mart.

It makes me wonder if there’s a cutoff age for children on Christmas cards; say, the year you stop trick-or-treating is the year you no longer pictorially convey the family’s tidings of comfort and joy.

But alas, my children are all still trick-or-treating, and I don’t have the willpower to stop just yet. I have stiff competition in the card department from a friend who once perched a two-year-old atop a ladder so he would be framed by the fullest part of the backyard magnolia tree. This woman also once wrapped a six-month-old in strands of white Christmas lights–fully lit.

The card was fabulous, by the way. Perhaps I should try that with the cat.

Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a freelance journalist who lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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