It took an entire day, but I finished all our holiday cards this weekend. When we have time I run my own little sweatshop (fueled with Christmas cookies) and the kids help me crank out about 90 cards to send. Last year we did potato print trees decorated with stickers (and if you didn’t see the post about it the first time around, it’s worth clicking on just to scroll down and see the hilariously horrific card Quinn accidentally came up with). When we don’t have time to make our own we do a photo card of the kids or the whole family. This was a busy year, so we hired my friend Carol to come photograph us at home, which worked out well since the kids really wanted our new dog in the picture.
I think in the era of email and texting and facebook and people feeling hyper in touch with phones on them all the time, holiday cards have lost a lot of significance and many people no longer bother. I understand that, and would never resent anyone for not sending us a card, but I like to send them. To me it’s important.
Several months back I read a piece on Motherlode that I believe was about gifts and/or thank you notes. (I would link to it except I don’t remember enough specifics to do a useful search in order to find it again.) The post basically asked why it is that in most families women are the ones tasked with finding gifts and writing thank you cards. I thought it was a good question, because those sorts of formal nice touches in the service of connecting people do tend to be neglected more by men than women. I know in my home if I don’t do them, they do not get done.
As often happens the most entertaining reading was in the comments, and one man’s writing in particular really bugged me. He essentially said that if women feel like wasting time by preparing little gift bags and writing notes it was no skin off his nose but that it was a pointless exercise. He made it sound silly. But it’s not silly. People need connections for fun, comfort, happiness, safety, support, protection, and meaning. Those connections are what make up our lives.
The gender component of this is interesting to me. I think it comes down to the fact that typically a man’s status is based more on measurable accomplishments, and a woman’s on the success of her relationships. For many of the couples I know it’s the woman who tends to be in charge of the social calendar and who keeps a running tally in mind of what kinds of interactions are taking place among family and friends. I do think women in general are more attuned to this than men (although there are certainly exceptions) and monitoring and maintaining relationships of all sorts is something women place a high priority on. This instinct makes sense to me because physically women are more vulnerable than men on average, and to counter that women tend to prefer groups. Maintaining connections is a way of securing a group.
So how do we maintain connections between people? By acknowledging that they matter to us and there are many ways to do that. One of the ways I like to do it is with holiday cards. I hand write each and every one. (The only exception was during Ian’s first deployment when everyone wanted an update about how he was doing in Iraq and the kids were 5, 3, and a month old and I had to print out a mass letter because there are limits to my ambition.)
I like going through my address book and stopping to think about all kinds of people from different points in my life. I want them to know I still think of them, and that the role they played or continue to play in my life means something. I like to think when they see their names written in my own cursive hand that they feel that connection, that they know I was thinking specifically of them. My list includes childhood friends and old professors, relatives both near and far, neighbors and business associates. It’s a list of my life from many angles.
Some people I never hear back from. Every year I weigh certain names in my book in front of me and decide if they are people who maybe don’t want to hear about my family anymore. When the effort to maintain even a slight connection is entirely one sided it’s hard to know. But then I will cross paths with one of these people unexpectedly, and I’ve been surprised when more than one of them has said they’ve kept every card we’ve ever sent, and they can’t wait to see what we’ll do next. So I think it’s worth the effort, even in cases where I’m not sure. The effect is sometimes made more lopsided by the fact that I blog. I’ve had many people apologize for not doing more to stay in touch and say they have a false sense that we are because they read my posts and feel up to date about my life. They forget that I’m still in the dark about what’s going on in theirs.
The man on the Motherlode thread who thinks his wife’s pretty gift bags and thank you cards are frivolous is wrong. And the part that bothered me was that he’s likely benefiting from his wife’s work in that regard and not giving it the proper respect. Those aren’t just gift bags and notes, they are ties to other people. Ties that are kept active and relevant and alive through something as simple as hand written cards. Does he expect a safety net to be in place among the people he knows in case of an emergency? In case he’s ill and needs help? To rejoice with him in his triumphs? To care that he exists at all? That doesn’t just magically happen. That takes some investment and effort, and different people find ways to do that differently. It sounded to me like he was mindlessly reaping the benefits of someone else’s work and that on some level he felt entitled to those benefits regardless. That’s arrogant, and I’m hoping in real life he’s less so.
Every year I wonder if I’m crazy to bother with all those cards. And every year I conclude no and sit down to address dozens of envelopes. I don’t expect my children to carry on the exact same tradition themselves, but I hope they each find a way that works for them to take a moment at least once a year to acknowledge the special individuals in their lives in a personal manner. Accessibility is not always the same as being in touch. Meaning requires intention. A day is not much to spend, really, in the service of maintaining those connections. Especially if it can be done with something as simple as a pen and a roll of stamps.
(Family portrait by Carol Kraco)