Thanksgiving is over, the guests have gone. A rainbow of Tupperware has wreathed itself around vestiges of turkey, dollops of casserole and tranches of candied yam. You have no meals to prepare, and it’s too early to unpack the Christmas or Hanukkah decorations. How will you use this post-feast glut of leisure? Can there be any question? This is the moment to write holiday cards — sending loving messages to friends and family members near and far, filling them in on the highlights of your year.
You chose your cards long ago. Now, fortified by a plate of microwaved leftovers, you are ready to sit down at your desk. You are ready to grab a colored pen and get cracking.
What’s that you say? You don’t have time to write individualized notes to 100 people? Who cares? Who reads these things, anyway?
I do. I regard “real” Christmas cards as seasonal epistolary trophies, and prominently display them on my wall. I feel bereft if a sprinkling of cards hasn’t arrived by Saint Nicholas Day. I read them as if they were short stories. And I never forget to send out a real card, with a real note, to everyone on my list.
Each holiday card is a memento of a fixed moment, and an expression of the year that produced it.
As with everything, my love of cards is my parents’ fault. When I was a child, my mother and father endowed every holiday with pagan levels of ceremony and glee, in order, my mother explained, to boost the vividness of our shared family memories—like a color filter you put on an Instagram photo to make everything gleam with supernatural vividness; only, in your brain, not on your phone.
We were the only kids in the neighborhood who woke to green Cream-of-Wheat on Saint Patrick’s Day; the only ones who were visited the last five days of every October, in the lead-up to Halloween, by “The Magic Pumpkin”— who mysteriously lit the candles in our jack-o-lanterns at dusk, leaving a small pile of candy beside each pumpkin for each kid. Not only did my parents write individual messages in each Christmas card they sent, they designed their own cards, and they involved us in the process as soon as we were sentient.
The first time I played an active role in card-creation was 1970. I had just turned four, and my mother, who was an ace graphic designer, asked me to do a drawing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with a black felt tip marker. My four-year-old spatial sense had difficulties with the antlers, but no matter. My mother transferred the drawing onto fawn card stock, two per sheet; she cut them to size on a flat paper-cutter, bringing down the long sharp arm with a satisfying slicing sound, and folded them neatly. Rudolph’s red nose (I’d just drawn a loop for it), she filled in with red-duct-tape circles, which I helped her make with a mini hole-punch. Then she and my father pried the red sticky tape dots off the hole-punch and stuck them at the tip of Rudolph’s muzzle. The cards were a luddite’s idea of 3-D. That was just one part of their allure.
The second part was the mystery of the recipients; they were people my parents had known long before I was on the planet; people whose changes of address they recorded in a booklet overlain with scrawls and codes. After Thanksgiving every year, I would lurk by the kitchen table as my parents sat down to write their cards, and listen as they reminisced aloud, saying names I remembered dimly—DiLorenzo? Takahara? Ginzel? The figures they conjured during their card-writing sessions emerged like characters in a novel. To me it seemed that the cards unlocked a form of benevolent magic, awakening those stories, those people, from suspended animation, making them present among us.
Every year, soon after my family’s mailing went out, a fleet of cards would begin arriving. They would pile up in a red wicker basket by the tree, frosted with glittering sleighs and fir branches, snowmen and candles. Picking up a card at random, I would read a letter from a woman who had been in high school with my mother; or from a fraternity brother of my father’s. They wrote as if they were still in my parents’ lives, when I knew in some cases they hadn’t seen each other for 10, 20, 30 years. The cards collapsed the distance between the decades. They paid witness to the young people they, and my parents, once had been; which remained at the heart of who they still were, who they would remain.
Upon the arrival of computers, my mother (who, after all, is a graphic designer) adapted quickly to technological changes, and my parents embraced the multi-photo family newsletter.
In my own case, I shun the newsletter — my energetic use of Facebook makes a yearly round-up redundant — but I look forward to choosing and writing my cards just as much as I look forward to the first snow.
For me, this tradition is a tribute to the singular endurance of communication on paper. These cards are artifacts of meaning. The pleasure of them is that they take time. The pleasure of them is that they are done specially. The pleasure of them is that each one is a memento of a fixed moment, and an expression of the year that produced it.
I will give and receive many gifts in the coming month; but my favorites will be the ones that ring in at 49¢ each.
Liesl Schillinger is the author of “Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century.”