the rambling boy
Not ‘Happy Holidays,’ not ‘Season’s Greetings,’
By LONN TAYLOR
I have spent a good deal of time this past few weeks writing Christmas cards. I am very big on Christmas cards. I enjoy getting them and I enjoy sending them. I sense that their popularity is decreasing as the ease of electronic communication increases and the price of postage goes up, but I revel in them and relish every step of the process, from picking them out in early November to putting the last batch in the mail. That final operation sometimes takes place around New Year’s Day, but I hold that Christmas lasts until Epiphany on January 6, so I give myself a little leeway in mailing them.
I am not a “Season’s Greetings” kind of guy. Christmas is Christmas, and I buy cards that have some reference to Christmas on them and send them to all of my friends, Christian, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, and Buddhist. No one has ever complained. I had a great-aunt who belonged to a fundamentalist church that did not celebrate Christmas because it is not mentioned in the New Testament, and she would mail Christmas cards back to people who were rash enough to send her one, but that has never happened to me.
As newspaper columnists remind us every December, the first Christmas cards were sent by Sir Henry Cole to some 200 of his friends in 1843, just three years after the introduction of the first postage stamp (which Cole helped to design) made such a mailing feasible. Cole was a Victorian English polymath, an industrial designer, author of children’s books, organizer of the London Exhibition of 1851, and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He liked things done in a first-class manner and so he commissioned the genre painter John Callcott Horsley to design his Christmas card. Horsley came up with a tryptich: the center panel showed a happy family at a festive dinner, with a little girl greedily clutching a glass of wine in both hands in the center; the side panels showed the parents from the center panel feeding the poor and clothing the destitute.
My wife, Dedie, and I send out about as many cards each year as Sir Henry Cole did. During the first years of our marriage we kept separate Christmas card lists and each mailed our own cards, but now we have a system worked out. I sign the cards for both of us, writing personal messages on most of them, put them in the envelopes, and stamp and address them but leave them unsealed. Dedie writes a Christmas letter, has it copied, adds the copies to the envelopes, and writes her own messages on the cards. We usually start this operation on Thanksgiving weekend and sometimes get finished by Christmas Eve. But as I said, anytime before January 6 is acceptable to us. Our friend Sally Buchanan in San Antonio, who passed away this year, wrote Christmas letters that got progressively later and later over the years until she ended up calling them Bastille Day letters.
Dedie writes our Christmas letters in a light vein and they are mostly about our travels and misadventures during the year. We do not, like so many people, discuss our accomplishments or those of our children because we have neither accomplishments nor children. On the other side of the coin, I keep in my files as a model to be avoided at all costs a Christmas letter I once received from an academic acquaintance. She began with a paragraph describing her medical problems, went on to complain that she had lost her fruit harvest to a late frost, lamented the fact that she had been unable to produce any publications or papers during the year, and ended by saying that her daughter had severed all ties with her but remained in therapy and that she had moderate hope for her. I have always hoped that things got better for her the following year. There should be an archive somewhere of American Christmas letters. They will give historians a hundred years from now a much more accurate picture of our culture than newspaper files or official documents will ever produce.
What I enjoy most about writing Christmas cards is the opportunity it provides to review the friendships that we have built up over the years. I sometimes amuse myself while addressing envelopes by imagining what their addresses would reveal to a private investigator who had access to our Christmas card list. The largest batch is composed of addresses in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland, friends and former colleagues from our many years of working in Washington. There are smaller groups of addresses in Santa Fe, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, representing friendships I formed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s when I lived in those cities. A lot of addresses are in Astoria and Portland, Oregon, many of them attached to Finnish names like Kankkonen and Jarvinen and Perttu and Patakoski, Dedie’s relatives and childhood friends. A much smaller number in Fort Worth, Houston, and Wharton represent my family and childhood friends – Dedie is much better at maintaining childhood friendships than I am. As I get older I am saddened by the names on our list that death has drawn a line through, but then I am gladdened when I see that each year we have added enough new names to balance those that have been deleted. Our Christmas card list reaches back through time to remind us each year of the people we love and have shared portions of our own lives with.
Every year I consider the expense and time involved in sending Christmas cards and I am tempted to stop doing it. But then I think about how important friendship is in life, and how much pleasure I get from the cards that I receive, and how good it is to take a few days each year to call up the faces of old friends, and I get out my pen and my stack of cards and envelopes and start scribbling away.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.