Keeping Christmas Real

Carter family Christmas portrait, 12/25/1978
Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

December seems to slip through my fingers faster than a toddler in a department store. The early days of Yule are a collision of the spiritual and temporal as I stagger toward another year’s finish line. My brakeless sleigh ride seems to pick up speed as we approach the winter solstice. While nature may be slowing into silent, denuded hibernation, our material commitments only accelerate and fray my red ribbon nerves. The tree may be trimmed, and the ornaments hung with care; Ancient garlands adorn our mantles and snake down a spiral staircase – yet, we come to realize in mid-December that we have miles to go before we can sleep. 

I occasionally catch myself slipping into adult self- pity wondering where the wonder has gone.  I may stand for a few uninterrupted moments staring at our Dickens Village trying to project myself down into the bustling mews of a Christmas Eve in Victorian London. I am suddenly on Oxford Street. I tip my top hat to a gaggle of carolers and exchange pleasantries with a street vendor who deposits steaming chestnuts into my coat pockets for two shillings.  The temperature is falling and the night is holding its breath in anticipation of a great snow that will soon blanket the charred and ancient slate gray homes, frosting the glass of local shops and businesses.  It is a wonderful working class world merrily harvesting the goodwill of another Christmas.

The skaters move in perpetual figure eights across an alabaster pond as children sled down cotton ball hillsides. The gas lanterns cast an eerie light across the stoop of Scrooge and Marley’s as a spectral figure chases after the gnarled skinflint in his night-clothes.  Perhaps if I stare at the village hard enough, I might actually disappear into history like some bizarre episode of the Twilight Zone.  My family would find the dog whimpering near the illuminated Victorian houses as they search our house in vain for their missing patriarch.  As the sobriety of my demise hits them, they cry out loud – regretting every night they took me for granted.  Suddenly, my youngest son notices a new figurine – a ruddy, middle-aged fellow with top-hat and green pea coat, arms full of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe gifts as he moves across a worn brick Common of snow toward an undisclosed engagement. “Dad?’ he whispers.

A voice from another room shatters my daydream. “Hon, we have alot cards and I could use some help.” It is a summons from the present.  I am lifted like Harry Potter out of Diagon Alley – landing awkwardly on a kitchen table top facing a table full of my holiday nemeses – – Christmas cards.

Somewhere in time, I soured to holiday greeting cards.  Personally, I am a huge fan of the handwritten note.  However the additional burden of writing and sending over 300 cards in a season where each day brings a new avalanche warning of mounting responsibilities, has convinced me that something must be thrown out of the Christmas aircraft or we will lose altitude and our sanity. I have become cynical to this rich century old tradition as just another form of commercial manipulation visited on me by some subliminal marketing expert in the greeting card industry.  

My spouse is filled with evergreen annoyance at my habitual refusal to help sign and send out cards.  Over the years, her retaliation has been to merely prune our list of recipients of anyone that knew me before she and I met.  I have essentially gone dark with anyone I knew between 1961 and 1986.  This leaves her a few leftover cards to send to people from her past – like a kindergarten teacher who has been dead for 15 years and whose card is faithfully returned to sender each December 28th.  

Christmas cards have been responsible for more holiday tension in my house than the VISA bill. We take Christmas cards very seriously. Each one is faithfully completed with a personal message.  To my more considerate spouse, cards are a critical accoutrement to the season – – a mistletoe effort to stay close to family and friends. She will pen notes until her hands cramp into frozen talons. There is a hard and fast protocol in our home that no Christmas card goes out without a handwritten message. A personal note lends sincerity to your wishes for a “wonderful holiday season”.  There is an extreme bias that a card arriving with nothing written is the equivalent of driving by someone’s house and honking the horn

The entire process is time-consuming and exhausting and distracts her from what should be her highest priority – me. Over the years, I have unsuccessfully lobbied to “take a year off” from the highly manual and debilitating process of signing and sending cards. As I watch her write, label and lick our annual missives, I can understand how postal workers might completely snap from the sheer repetition of processing the tidal wave of season greetings.

With the advent of Shutterfly, the tension of our annual card production has been mitigated. One can now upload digital photos into a range of configurations, push a button and receive, two days later, 300 picture perfect greeting cards at your door courtesy of UPS.  Technology has further simplified the process of adding and deleting acquaintances, friends and business associates. However, the process of sending, messaging and receiving cards leaves me feeling like the Grinch. My kids, on the other hand, could care less about sending cards and in this age of castrated text messages and electronic cards, they view our annual postal blitz as a form of self-mutilation.  They do, however, take a keen interest in which photographs we use for the family picture.  

As the troops gathered around the Mac to manufacture this year’s collage of family photos, I was working and did not want to be disturbed.  I did not want to voluntarily leap into the mosh pit of in-fighting over which photos would be selected.  A voice moaned, “I look horrible in that one.”  “Oh my god, my nose looks like I got stung by a yellow jacket, forget that one. “ Another voice pleads, “No, wait a minute. I like that one. You don’t look so ugly.  Well, actually you do…” I could hear scuffling and finally détente as my wife yelled for me to come to the next room and “choose a photo of myself.”

I moaned. I prefer cards that just show photos of the kids.  I am happy to step out of the frame and deny someone I grew up with the satisfaction of knowing that they are aging better than I am. For some reason, no matter what camera I use, it keeps producing images of a lumpy, salt and pepper middle-aged changeling.  I just cannot understand it. I have come to dread the holiday picture as I refuse to go gently into that aging good night.  Yet, on a rare occasion, the light hits me just right and my shirt is not bunching around my midsection.  I might approve this photo only to be told that I am being selfish because no one else in my one picture looks “good”. “Dad, no way.  I look bizarre.” 

Normally vanity kicks in and I join the fracas trying to find some low light, airbrushed Blanche Dubois photo that can be manipulated to appear that I am not everyone’s father – including my spouse. This year, I did not have the energy to search months of photographs and instead sanctioned them to “just pick something.” I could hear them confer in the low, dulcet tones like a tribal council.  “Ok,” someone yelled. “I think we have it.”

The cards arrived the next day from Shutterfly.  The cover image was a gorgeous winter photo taken of our home during a December storm.  The image was tastefully stenciled with one word: “Joy”.  So far, so good. I opened the card to find a series of handsome photographs of each family member accompanied by a shrunken family photo taken at the Grand Canyon last April.  There was just one problem – there was no picture of me.  I was a mere shadowy figure in our family shot but otherwise, I was missing in action.  “We couldn’t find one that we thought you would like. So we did not include one.”

I was suddenly concerned that everyone who receives our card would read too much into my missing photo.  .Friends relying on our annual card as a touchstone for measuring our life’s progress might wonder if I had been mangled in an industrial accident and now must be relegated to the shadows for my own self defense.  “Ouch!  Looks like Mike must have really let himself go.  He didn’t make the cut for the card.”

 I suddenly felt like the Elephant Man.  “I am not an animal! There must be a few good pictures of me – somewhere!” I was met with blank stares and perplexed looks. So this is what it had come to.  I was now officially “the man who lives under the stairs.” 

The cards are now coursing through the clotted veins of the US Postal Service – across thousands of miles of farmland, ocean and urban landscape to settle into the mailboxes of friends and family.  Our mug shots will adorn refrigerators, creative strands of garland and bowed stacks that rest on the tops of coffee tables.  We will add some spice and cinnamon goodwill to hundreds of home.  Yep, ol’ Boo Radley and his posse.

Next year, I pick the photos.  They will be paparazzi shots of surly teens, morning grumps and pale, mid-winter, Vitamin D starved zombies.  I’m going to fit right in and have the theme for our holiday greeting: “Keeping Christmas Real.”

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