Here’s my hot take on an age-old holiday tradition: I love holiday cards. Christmas cards, holiday cards, whatever you want to call them, I love them.
I love when they start rolling in soon after Thanksgiving and I love that we can bank on the first one being from a friend I worked with 20 years ago. I love that every card is a snapshot of my loved ones’ lives. Each one gives a glimpse of their personality and style.
I love seeing the elegant cursive penmanship of my older relatives, an increasingly lost art. I love the pictures of kids, a year older and taller, spitting images of their parents. I love the self-indulgent essays some pen on the dramatic doings of their family over the past year. I love to groan at the families that dress in matching outfits and do something corny for the picture. OK, on three, everyone jump!
The U.S. Postal Service expects to deliver roughly 15 billion cards, letters and packages this holiday season. My wife and I contribute about 80 to 100 holiday cards to that total each year, sending them out to family, friends and colleagues spread out in 19 states.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s also the busiest. There’s so much on all of our plates: presents to buy, parties to attend, dinners to host, guests to put up, trips to plan. Holiday cards can seem like a nuisance. One more thing to do.
In some ways, it’s a dated ritual in a day and age when you could much more easily post a picture on Facebook or Instagram. Just click a button and be done. You’d reach even more people than you do with your cards. You’d save time and money on stamps. And digital messages don’t require paper printed from dead trees.
But I think cards are still worth the effort — maybe even more now than ever. It’s a rare analog moment in an increasingly digital world.
We’ve got three young kids, so we’re on the lookout for a good holiday card photo all year. It might happen serendipitously on spring break. It may happen at the beach in the summer. It might happen on that trip out West to see the mountains.
If it doesn’t, you find yourself trying to force a photo in front of a Christmas tree. It’s December and the clock is ticking. You dress the kids in nice sweaters. You comb their hair. You try to get the dog to stand still. Inevitably something goes awry. Your youngest isn’t having it. Meltdown! When the tears start, it’s a lost cause. Just move on and hope to get that shot another day.
When you do get a good picture — with all the kids smiling, all their eyes open — you know it right away. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. Send that baby to print.
Our holiday card list has its share of perennials but it’s also fluid on the edges. Updating the list is a way of taking stock of the relationships in your lives and the changes that occurred over the past year. There are melancholy moments as you remember the beloved elderly aunt who passed away. You think about your cousin who got divorced. You remember your niece’s fun wedding.
You add new friends to the list, perhaps the families of your children’s schoolmates. If you’ve got a new job, you’ll give one to the new boss. You also evaluate whether to keep sending a card to the neighbor who moved away five years ago or the co-worker from that job you quit a decade ago. Sadly, we have to make some cuts. Such is life.
As you address each individual envelope, you at least momentarily consider each of these friends and relatives and what they mean to you. My wife and I have brief conversations, “How’s your Uncle Bob doing these days?” “Looks like the Johnsons moved again.” Maybe it’s a reminder of how long it’s been since you’ve seen them — which prompts you to try and arrange a get-together in the new year.
We live in an era of coarsening public discourse. Political discussions are volatile. Our president starts each day with inflammatory, divisive Tweets. We live with trigger warnings, terror threats, Fake News, and internet trolls. Our schools practice lockdown for mass shootings that have become all too common.
We need to retain some of our traditions of civility and graciousness. We need to take time to reach out to those we love with a personal touch. We need moments, however brief, that make us feel warm inside. We need reasons to smile.
So get those holiday cards in the mail. We will too.
John Biemer, a former reporter, is a physician and freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.