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Card tricks for Christmas

MY FRIENDS ARE so attractive I can barely stand it. Look at them on their Christmas cards! Bright-eyed, jovial and immaculately groomed beneath their Santa hats, they are living tributes to bourgeois family ideals. And that’s just the pets. The humans -- adults and children alike -- are downright cinematic. With today’s technology, everyone can be Photoshopped to chiaroscurist perfection. Suddenly, we are all strong jawed, smooth skinned and gloriously angular. If the late fashion photographer Herb Ritts had guest edited the J. Crew catalog, the result would be these cards. Even the babies have cheekbones.

I would ask whatever happened to portrait studio holiday cards -- where kids sat before painted scenes of country roads while clutching Winnie the Pooh toys -- but that would be like asking what happened to rotary telephones. And good riddance! With all the perils young children face these days, at least they can rest assured that they won’t have to face a creepy shutterbug who orders them to tilt their heads slightly and say the word “pizza.”

There’s no pizza -- and, moreover, no stiff poses -- in today’s family holiday portraits. These greetings are all about art, or at least the suggestion of art. We know this because a large portion of the photos are black and white, which, as any subscriber to the Sundance Channel knows, signifies class, sophistication and, most important, not really being the kind of people (i.e. embarrassing relatives or cheesy neighbors) who pose for holiday portraits.

This is a genius maneuver, this canceling out of something while simultaneously embodying it. It’s what would happen if Porsche made a minivan. But these cards, while visually appealing in a pharmaceutical ad kind of way (substitute “Season’s Greetings” for “talk to your doctor about relief for your generalized anxiety disorder” and see if you can tell the difference), do more than just highlight our bone structures. They highlight the degree to which the design craze has affected not just our relationship to home and garden but our entire notion of family life.

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Like a coffee table from Ikea or a Michael Graves fondue set from Target, the black-and-white holiday portrait is the ultimate lifestyle accessory. It connotes upward mobility and aesthetic sensitivity, yet is wholesome enough (no one’s smoking a cigarette or showing too much leg) to send en masse to relatives and professional contacts. Best of all, it conveys privilege without elitism.

Thanks to digital photography and the countless companies that supply these cards for reasonable fees, just about anyone can afford to send holiday greetings that not only say “peace and joy” but imply “hip and cool” (if not “Jules and Jim”).

For those of us who don’t have kids, this trend is yet another reason to ask whether we should send Christmas cards at all. Sure, it’s the thought that counts, the miracle of the season and all that. But now that the main miracle revolves around the degree to which a family from Bakersfield can get themselves to look like the Kennedys, non-parents might wonder if cards that prosaically display angels and evergreens will be as welcome as forwarded e-mails about NEA funding.

Of course, there’s no law that says holiday photos must feature children. I recall a Christmas card one year from a single woman who’d enclosed a photo of herself standing on the beach in a sarong, uncorking a bottle of champagne. The message in this case went beyond the medium, because she was only wearing one shoe and appeared to be losing her balance. Then there’s my best friend, who, in an act of revolt against parents who send out ultrasound photos of children in utero, once considered fashioning a holiday card from a sonogram of her benign abdominal cyst. The growth, she insisted, was already on the waiting list for private school.

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But holiday cards are still largely the domain of families, and I’ll freely admit to looking forward every year to seeing not only what my friends and their kids look like but what kind of art direction they’ve chosen as a means of conveying their station in life.

Still, I can’t help but be disappointed at the way these cards have elbowed out my very favorite holiday tradition, the family newsletter. As a kid, I loved nothing more than reading about the job promotions, science fair awards and gallstones of people I barely knew.

Today, we’re either too modest to divulge this information or too busy getting our teeth whitened for the photo shoot to sit down and write a letter. I just hope next year this trend will expand to at least include bios with these photos. Even a press release will do.


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