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Tis the Season … to Brag

Christmas cards aren’t what they used to be.

For starters, they’re not even just for Christmas anymore. Even my Jewish and secular friends send “holiday cards.” And they go way beyond a typical greeting card.

When we were kids, moms sent out plain old holiday cards they bought on sale at the neighborhood CVS the day after last year’s Christmas. Customized cards? Annual letters chronicling the family’s happenings to the last detail? Forget it.

Nowadays, parents can’t get away with that — let alone send a photo-less Christmas card. It is not done. (What, you don’t think your kids are cute enough to put on your card? What kind of parent are you?) And cards must be sent to everyone you know, no matter how tenuous the acquaintance. My mother didn’t believe in sending cards to friends in town whom we saw regularly, but the rules have changed — and she would never believe the pressure today’s parents feel to get it right.

Why? Because these aren’t just innocent pieces of cardstock in your mailbox and on your mantel — they’re annual family PR campaigns.

I don’t mind admitting that I am something of an expert on the topic of the Christmas card. My obsessive analysis of the genre goes back a long time. Decades, even.

These aren’t just innocent pieces of cardstock in your mailbox — they’re annual family PR campaigns.

The first Christmas card I truly idolized came from my neighbors and showed their beagle on their leather couch. Up and down our street, everyone thought it was funny. As a 12-year-old, I thought it was brilliant. The years went by; there was now a baby and a beagle on the couch. Then it was a little kid, a baby, and a beagle. Then it was two little kids, a baby … You get the idea. Those three kids were almost in college when the beagle died and the Christmas-couch theme shifted to their beach house. But it left an impression on me. This is what a yearly Christmas card should be: a condensed chronicle of a family growing up.

From then on I determined that when I grew up and had a dog, and eventually children, of my own, I would most definitely send photo cards to everyone I knew. And I needed a theme, a way to brand my own family the way my neighbors had branded theirs. Perhaps I could get a leather couch …

Years later, just in time to coincide with my own foray into motherhood, flimsy, glossy, drugstore-photo Christmas cards were no longer hitting my mailbox in skinny rectangular envelopes. In their place were unorthodox, thick 5 x 7″ cards that were predominantly brown (hip! modern! unheard of!) with a matte finish and funky fonts. These were more than your basic photo Christmas cards; these were works of art.

My horizons exploded.

As an adolescent critic of holiday-card protocol, I never imagined the possibilities that technology would open before me when I became a mother. I had no idea I would someday sit at the kitchen table in front of a MacBook, scrolling through and editing (and re-editing and re-editing) digital images of my children, playing with various effects (do they look better in sepia or monochrome?), and then browsing hundreds of card designs on upscale stationery sites.

My family-branding opportunities are now as limitless as the expanding customizable options these companies offer. Do I market our family as preppy? Traditional? Whimsical? Are we a glossy family? A semi-glossy family? Do my boys seem like boys who belong on a card with rounded edges?

Even though I spend just as much time on them as the next “modern parent,” I fear that couture Christmas cards have really become just another event in the Mompetition arena. As I walk from the mailbox to the front door, I admit I flip cards over to see which company designed them, the way we looked inside collars to check labels in middle school. I can barely sleep at night when I get a really good card. (“Are they happier than I am? Beach house, check. Lexus, check … They are happier than I am!”) It seems there’s a new status symbol in town.

Is our intention really to extend our best happy holiday wishes to our mailing lists? Family members, probably. Far-flung relatives, maybe. Dear friends, okay. But 50 or 100 friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and old classmates? Is that what we’re spending a couple hundred bucks and countless design hours on?  Nah. If that’s all we wanted to do, we could give them a call. Send a text, maybe.

Many of the friends I send cards to are “friends” the way my Facebook friends are “friends.” I haven’t seen some of them since my wedding — if then — and we have not laid eyes on each other’s children (in person), and probably never will. So why do we make sure to send each other cards every Christmas? Because, like a Facebook profile picture, holiday cards 2.0 show we’re successful. We’re married! We’re mothers! We have adorable, well-dressed children! If you’re like me, you can’t bow out because there’s almost no end to what you can show off about yourself and your super-successful-life-and-happy-family with a simple holiday card and hardly any words.

While I wouldn’t trade an ounce of today’s cardstock or the possibilities of Photoshop for those old-school drugstore cards, I do miss the fact that there was nothing pretentious about my neighbor’s beagle on the couch. The photos weren’t professional-grade, the couch wasn’t anything special, and no one seemed to be proving anything. Instead, those amateur, off-center cards were bursting with good cheer and good humor. But those days are over. Today, the whole thing just screams disposable income! (And then some.)

Is this all a little “bah, humbug”? Maybe. Maybe my friends really aren’t advertising their families’ success, happiness, and recent exotic vacations. Maybe they really are sending genuinely heartfelt holiday greetings. But is my husband right that I am the only woman alive who obsesses about her Christmas cards this much? Not a chance. All of those thick, trendy, designer cards in my mailbox look a whole lot like mine, after all.

The Christmas cards I sent this year continued to play by these new rules, of course. No matter how crazy the competition or how ridiculously fancy (and pricey) the cards get, I just cannot resist hearing the high praise from neighbors, colleagues, and friends that my cards always look like a Ralph Lauren ad. So I dragged my kids down to the dunes last month in their coordinated, monogrammed couture Christmas jon-jons and bribed and threatened my way through the dreaded annual photo shoot. Because this year we moved to the beach, and I’ve been waiting to dazzle my friends with that backdrop for years.

Amid the minor meltdowns and iffy weather of the beach photo shoot, my husband informed me that he hoped I realize that no one else really cares about our Christmas cards. That may be true, and I’m okay with that. As long as they come out perfect. Just in case.

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