Getting the Christmas message out


Christmas cards have begun to arrive. That’s okay. Everyone enjoys Christmas cards. For one thing, you can use the cards to brighten the place up. Maybe you are not disposed to decorate the house for Christmas. Maybe you can’t be bothered, or you don’t have even the rudimentary aesthetic sense necessary to distinguish between a swag and a garland. The Christmas cards you get can be a big help.

Some folks tape the cards around doorways. Others crowd the mantle above the fireplace. Some prop the cards on the Christmas tree, or staple them to green baize that you pushpin to a vacant wall, or tape them to the balusters, or paste them in a Christmas album. With any of these techniques, before you know it, your house will look like it was decorated for Christmas by Kathy Lee Gifford and poor Frank. And even if you haven’t the decorating sense of a muskrat, your place is bound to look cheerier than Martha Stewart’s Omnimedia balance sheet.

But what to do with the cards that enclose tales of the family’s year-long exploits, including the medical travails of Uncle Arthur and Aunt Agnes. Tis the season to be thinking about and celebrating ourselves, many of these Christmas correspondents apparently believe. Have a merry, merry memoir — mine, that is — is the way their greeting goes.

I do like the cards that have pictures of the family. But there are some giant pitfalls to guard against. Sometimes the photographs are of children or grandchildren, and who knows who they are? Children change in the course of a year, and they multiply. Captions and identifications are a must, but short and no need to tell us how cute they are. We can judge for ourselves.

You may prefer, as I do, cards that feature pictures of the family or friends that I know, rather than all the little tykes that have come along to complicate things.

I like to recognize these old acquaintances and examine in a clinical way the changes that have taken place. Oh, I might say, Tom’s added a few pounds, hasn’t he? For some, through the wonders of surgical intervention, the deterioration one misses in one’s own mirror but remarks cheerfully in the Christmas images of distant friends, may be absent. Whoa, we say, Missy must have had some serious work done this year.

Or maybe, Hey, wasn’t Henry’s wife a short blonde in last year’s Christmas card? She’s a tall redhead this year. What gives?

(Note to self: Maybe our card this year ought to feature an inanimate object rather than our disintegrating selves.)

The photo-cards that show things, not people, can be just the right choice. Of course, they can also be a bit cheesy. For instance, I remember one Christmas we got a card from an in-law, and the picture was of his farm tractor. No one on it. No explanation. Was it a venerable, collector’s-item tractor, a new tractor, the only thing left after his divorce, the tractor he’d used to bury some recently departed loved one. What? We never found out. It may have been a Hallmark tractor.

Generally, Christmas card pictures of boats are good; pictures of kids lined up on the sofa staring at the TV while they compete in a video game are not. Pictures which show the whole family — parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, in-laws, pets, household help — are good, but crowded and demanding. Pictures of the beloved offspring, slouching and wearing shades, are not. No shades in photos. It’s as repellent as the hat an old tugboat captain of my acquaintance wore, whose legend was “Back Off.”

In some cases, the welcome greeting from friends and family with whom we’ve been mostly out of touch over the past year includes a letter. I remember one from a few years ago. It reported: “The big news for the Cumbers this year is that little Eric is out of diapers.” My heart sank. Tails of urological transitions are definitely not Christmassy.

Then there was Candy’s Christmas update in which she announced that “Since Geoff left us, we’ve had a bit of a struggle, but we’re gaining ground. Young Geoff Jr. has decided to return to middle school after a hiatus of almost 10 months, during which he almost never left his room. (God, it was a mess when we finally got in there.) I think he blamed me, but my psychiatrist tells me that it’s not my fault and that guilt is an inrushing tide that will drown me. I’m determined to keep my head above water.”

I’m wondering, What happened to Geoff Senior? Did he have a fatal accident? Get lost on a ski trip to Whistler? Join the Taliban? What? It’s a Christmas mystery.

I also wondered about Belinda, Geoff Jr.’s older sister. Nothing about her exploits, though given the incendiary nature of her thirteenth and fourteenth years there may have been too much to tell.

Candy filled in some blanks in the summation. She wrote, “Geoff’s buxom new friend Rusty may be the one featured on his Christmas card this year, but Geoff Jr., Beyonce (formerly Belinda and now expecting), the twins (did I tell you I had twins with my friend Jean-Luc), my mother Grace (who now lives with us, or the other way around as she would have it), and I expect we’ll all be back in our proper places next Christmas when I write again. I say Merry Christmas and Good Will to Men. Though maybe not to every man.”