Op-Ed: Let 2020 be the year we do away with glossy perfection on our holiday cards

A mother photographs her sons with Aspen Mountain in the background.
In Aspen, a mother photographs her sons for the family holiday card. Aspen Mountain is in the background in the undated photo.

(Nathan Bilow)

I’ve always been ambivalent about the holiday photo card — the snapshots of “here we are casually walking down a country road” or the ones on a beach at sunset where every family member just happens to be wearing white.

They are the Instagram equivalent of the holiday letter — a rosy-cheeked, Photoshopped version of a family’s year. A crying kid on Santa’s lap is an allowable transgression, with tears still in service of maximizing adorableness.

Now that 2020 has left us all depleted, wrung out with grief and disappointment, this season seems like the perfect time to do away with the pretense of it all. In my mailbox this year, I am hoping to see do-it-yourself haircuts, pants without zippers, and yes, the quarantine 15 that all that home baking piled on.


Soon after the baking craze started in May, after the initial wave of lockdown shock started to crest, the “pandemic porch portrait” suddenly was a thing. My social media stream filled with pictures of families gathered outside their homes. When a woman in a local parenting group offered to document our community, I signed up. During our brief session, my husband, our 8-year-old son and I stood looking dolefully at our photographer well over 12 feet away.

After we got the proofs, my husband quipped, “Well, I think we got our holiday card photo for this year!” And, yes, we’re using it. When I looked on photo sites to order up prints, I was glad to see new greetings being offered: “Well, that was crazy!” “We tried.” “Good riddance 2020!” and “It’s a merry, all around crazy sheltered Christmas.”

They are a stride toward honesty. This year, we have seen the fragility and futility of all those hopeful “this year I will” goals set in January. I wonder how holiday cards can render the heartbreaking absence of loved ones. Will this year’s cards — delivered postelection and pre-inauguration — have markers of political joy or anger? Can any card show what it feels like to see an elderly parent only through the window of an assisted-living facility?

The holiday photo card seems akin to the college alumni magazine entry, often just about highlighting accomplishments. Where are the pithy comments about job loss or breakups? Illness or deep disappointment? Perhaps that’s just not the point; it’s not the place to reveal a raw or unphotogenic moment.

There was an intriguing article in the Wall Street Journal last year about how the holiday card has evolved — and the visual language of announcing life changes without words. What counted as a breach of convention, such as revealing illness by not hiding medical equipment, showed how strongly the boundaries have been set for smiling kids and perfect backgrounds.

This year offers a moment to peel back from the code of visual perfection, allowing us to reveal our flaws. During one emotionally dark winter when I was trying to get pregnant and not succeeding, I stood by a trash can and tore into tiny pieces the holiday cards that “announced with joy” a baby’s first Christmas or Hanukkah. Then I cinched up the trash bag and took it outside. Even the torn scraps seemed to hurt me, lying like fallen puzzle pieces, representing something I so badly wanted but didn’t have.


A season of disappointment and depression as COVID-19 rages

Nov. 14, 2020

This year, there will be no pictures of children on Santa’s lap. And I hope, for once, my friends will put themselves in the frame and not just let images of their kids stand in for their whole family. Since I can’t see my friends in person, I want to at least see them in the photos. Let this year be the one when we’re all in the picture, as our disheveled, beautiful, surviving selves.

I’m sure there will still be some wind-swept beach scenes, at least in Southern California, where a photographer can shoot this scene from afar. But I’m hoping the 2020 cards show the kind of dour honesty this year has forced on us. We’re using our porch portrait and letting our unsmiling faces be what represents us. I’ll write a hopeful message but acknowledge how bad things have been.

Honesty never was the point of the holiday card, but there is unity in a shared experience of isolation and anxiety. Maybe the pandemic will have lessened our need to pose on all levels. Maybe in this year’s photo greetings, I will see friends and family telling me, “This is where we stood and waited for this to pass.”

Elline Lipkin is a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and teaches creative writing for Los Angeles Writing Classes.