(Grace) With Every Christmas Card We Write

Making the most of a holiday family tradition.

Sam Bush / 12.17.21

As much as people get upset about Christmas being celebrated earlier and earlier each year, there is one long-standing tradition that happens long before the holiday décor rolls out: the family Christmas card. Forget Halloween – of the cards we currently have lining our kitchen wall, a large percentage of them feature people wearing summer clothes. Based on the good lighting and blissful smiles, these are no candid shots. Any time a family is in the same place and looking relatively presentable is a rare opportunity to capture that treasured annual photo. My own family’s card was taken in August with the specific intent of being sent out to the masses in December. I can hardly call it a self-fulfilled prophecy.

The Christmas card is low-hanging fruit for holiday cynics. There is a long list of counts against it, the first of which is that it’s a commercial tradition, that its original purpose was to line the pockets of the greeting card industry executives. 2 billion Christmas cards are mailed each year (85% of which are purchased by women) and there are over 3,000 greeting card publishers in America to take a piece of the pie. It is an invention that created its own need and demand. Whereas you might have previously assumed that you were friends with someone, the Christmas card now serves as official documentation of friendship. If you didn’t get So-and-So’s card this year you may as well consider yourself excommunicated.

Another strike against the Christmas card is that it’s a publicity stunt. Even the most well-intentioned card involves at least some kind of a promotional appeal. Holiday brag letters aside, every card has a built-in pressure to remind people that you exist. Did you even have a baby or travel to Lake Cuomo this year if you don’t have the Christmas card to prove it? If you can get all of your children to smile at the same time, it not only announces that you’re still alive, but it suggests that you’re doing quite well.

Most of all, Christmas cards are a breeding ground for judgement. Who looks genuinely happy? Who looks too posed? Who had the guts to explicitly quote Scripture? Christmas cards give everyone a chance to be a Southerner, to publicly announce, “Everything is fine.” They are the physical manifestation of social media. Just like Instagram and Facebook, the result is that everybody is either looked down upon for being inferior or resented for being superior. The success of your own card depends on how it measures up against your friends.

So it goes when we make Christmas about ourselves. We ride the roller coaster between self-righteous judgment and insecure envy. Instead of rest, we find resentment. Instead of joy, we find jealousy. It’s no wonder people try out some humor with their cards.

And yet, before I launch any further into a “Let’s Put the Christmas Back in Christmas Cards” campaign, I have to say that I genuinely love this tradition.

At its most fundamental level, the Christmas card is a sign that someone is thinking about you, at least long enough to write down your address and spend fifty-eight cents on postage. When the most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, the Christmas card is one way to reestablish a bond with someone, no matter how superficial. In an age of virtual connection, it is a tangible token of friendship. It’s one thing to check your friends’ news feed but it’s another to be greeted by their picture on your kitchen wall each morning.

You can hate on the superficiality of Christmas cards all you want, but we recently moved cities for the first time in fifteen years and, getting any picture of familiar friends is enough to make me a little weepy. Yes, everyone is susceptible to making a game out of who has the most Christmas cards, but when you’re thankful for any Christmas card at all, it’s a helpful reminder of the people you love and the people who might actually love you. In fact, it may be a helpful way to track how God has touched your own life through the lives of so many others.

Christmas cards may be misleading and unauthentic, yes, but “misleading and unauthentic” can also be an accurate description of human beings in general. At the end of the day, a Christmas card is a picture of people. People who, by the grace of God, had at least one second when they were standing next to each other and smiling.

In its purest form, the card is simply one small way to extend a gesture of human love. I have actually found that my favorite cards are the ones that can’t help but reveal a more human element. Either the lighting is a little off or a baby isn’t looking at the camera. These are the photos that depict life as it is. We all try so hard to look like we have it all together, but most of the time that is simply too much to ask of us.

So forget the font type or border or whether the greeting says, “Peace on Earth” or “JOY.” Don’t worry about finding the picture that will perfectly sum up your year or your family or identity. Just send out a picture of your faces with all of their imperfections. After all, you do not have to be perfect to be loved.

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