Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Merry Christmas and All That"

I still send out Christmas cards through the mail. Yep. Snail mail.

I'm that old-fashioned. Sentimental.

Did Christmas greeting cards begin with the Victorians?
Sounds like them... but I dunno.

I love to receive the cards and look at the style, the size, the greeting, whether it is secular or religious. I like to see how they are signed -- if they are pre-printed -- or personally signed by the sender. Do they have glitter? Foil on the back of the envelope? Does this person know me? Or am I on their Christmas card list, and they have trouble remembering who I am?


I love Christmas letters.


As a kid, I used to love to look at the cards that my parents received. They had a wide range of friends from all parts of the United States. They received cards from my dad's Army friends from WWII and my mom's old roommates from college, friends that my parents had for fifty years, and when traveling, if they were in their town, would call and try to see.

For my parents, this was the only time they heard from some of their friends -- separated by distance and time and the busyness of families to raise, my parents cherished these cards and letters.

My mother would save the cards so that she could write in the next year's card and ask questions pertinent to what was happening the year before. She actually tied the Christmas cards from each year in a bundle and labeled them "Stephenson" or "Callahan." She would bundle the cards from "Flo" her best friend and put them in chronological order. They were stored in the attic in a box. Each year before sending out Christmas cards, she would reread the cards and letters from the year before...when she died, the cardboard box full of Christmas cards were in the attic and the last year that she lived labeled: "Stephenson 1994" on the outside of the envelope. It was fun to see how stamps and postage changed too. :)

During the Christmas season, my mother placed all the Christmas cards that she received in a crystal bowl and at night, she would sit down and look at the cards over and over. She loved keeping up with her friends. She would also show me cards that she found exceptionally pretty or sentimental.

My father would write the annual Christmas letter. He was a good writer -- succinct yet informative - and then my mother would write personal notes on the cards to her friends with more detailed information with what she wanted to tell them about her life --

but mostly she was asking them about what was going on in theirs. Sometimes, she would write such long personal notes that she needed to extend the notes to notebook paper. My mother's handwriting was hard to read, something she knew, so she took extra care to write legibly. She spent hours on those notes.


What a lost art -- and what a lost sincerity of heart...

When my parents died, we found our annual family Christmas letters in a file folder. They were dated back to the early 60s and each one was fun to read as my Dad devoted a short paragraph to each child... and then one about them. These letters were pounded out on an old Remington typewriter with a wonky "r." I have no idea how they were duplicated at the time -- but I do remember carbon paper... LOL.

These were the types of comments that my dad wrote about me:

"Harriett Sue is in 7th grade and spends as much time as we'll let her next door at her best friend's house. They ride their bikes everywhere and help the boys with their paper routes. "


"Harriett Sue broke her shoulder in a freak accident while at a church social. We were thankful that she wasn't hurt worse -- as the break was complicated and quite painful for her."


"As a tenth grader, Harriett Sue made the drill team, a dance team that performs at halftime at the football games. She keeps herself busy with that, her school work, and her time on the phone. In fact, the phone rings constantly, and it is always for her."

I used to love the Christmas letters written by my parents' friends. In retrospect, some of them were quite braggy and obnoxious, others simple and direct, yet empty of real information -- in fact, quite vague. One family included a picture every year -- the children growing up like one of those time lapse videos...

One set of my parents' friends were not only obnoxious on paper, but obnoxious when we saw them. They were the same nuclear family that we were --- four children, Army dad, wife --- but the difference was they had "money."

Money that they didn't mind reminding us of...

When we traveled once a year at Christmas to visit my grandparents, we got together with my dad's friend and his family, the obnoxious Christmas letter ones. They lived in the same town as my grandparents, and we always devoted one night to going to see them or they came to my grandparents's house. What I remember most is that we always had to wear Sunday dress to see them.


We got along well with their kids -- similar in age and interests -- we used to play serious competitive games -- "Spit" and "Stratego" and "The Game of Life" or my older brother and sister would listen to records with the older siblings there. I had a huge crush on the boy that was my age -- and thought him pretty "dreamy" at the time -- even though I could beat him easily at "Spit." I once remember exchanging kisses with him in the basement. I think I was twelve, and he was thirteen.


My parents would drink coffee and have coffee cake on the good china with the parents and did a lot of laughing.. and I remember the cigarette smoke that wafted from the living room where they were sequestered while the kids were sent off "to play" -- both of their parents smoked, mine didn't, and I thought it was so sophiscated to smoke.

With that said, I remember how obnoxious their Christmas letter was -- and I parody it here:

"Jimmy Jr., is captain of the football team and number one in his class academically. He has been recurited by five Ivy League schools with the promise of full scholarships. We are buying him a new expensive, custom made (just for his awesomeness) Ford Mustang when he graduates, of course, after he gives the valedictory address. He's by far the smartest young man in five hundred miles. We hate it for all of those people who dont' have this kind of son. Aren't we blessed?

Robin, our beautiful smart daughter, was crowned Class Favorite and won the Little Miss Tobacco Pageant. She is in demand by all the most promising boys in her class and Jimmy Jr.'s for dates. She has three John Romain purses and wears nothing but Villiager sweaters that she has in all sixteen colors. We are pretty sure that she will follow Jimmy Jr. in being the best thing her classmates have ever seen..."


You get the picture -- while meanwhile, my parents had reasons to brag about their own children, but never did. After all, I was one of them. :) They never mentioned to us in any way that the obnoxious Christmas letter people wrote about anything other than fact... they just read it and were happy and proud for them.

My parents really were such good people; they would be ashamed of how I mock.

Christmas letters -- you either write them or you don't. You either find them informative, amusing, or you don't.
Regardless, I believe that cards and letters will soon vanish from our culture and customs.

Do you send Christmas cards? Letters?

Just wondering -- cuz, that's what I do.


  1. This one's a keeper! I love it. My parents sent cards, but I never knew anyone who wrote the family catch-up letters until many years later. Maybe you are younger than me.

    My favorite line: "what a lost art - and what a lost sincerity of heart."

    Why won't Blogger allow posters to copy and paste?

  2. You know how much I love your Christmas letter. Hopefully 2010 will bring only wildly amusing things to mock. By the way, I think Joe went to college with Robin, your parent's friends' daughter. We get a very similar letter regarding her stellar, magnificant children (casting calls, offers of CEO). Too funny.

  3. Ah, you have taken me on another trip down Memory Lane. I, too, loved to look at and read my parents cards and letters when I came home from college and later from wherever I was teaching. My Mom kept them in a crystal bowl as well. I keep mine in a Christmas bowl and I love the ones that come with a Christmas letter! I used to always write a Christmas letter but have not for several years. I only sent the letters to people I do not see through the year - faraway friends. I might have to go back to it. I don't want those Christmas letters to end but I am afraid I agree with you that it is rapidly becoming a lost art.

  4. We are Christmas card people. We try to do a family photo but fooled around too long and now my wife is just sending one with the kid's pictures on it. I had a beard up until a couple of weeks ago that I had grown to play King Herod for a drive through Nativity. It was pretty fun but I did look like Akhmed the terrorist. I had a lot of gray on my chin and it was pretty scary.

  5. I write Christmas letters. I got the idea when one of our old neighbors from Atlanta sent us a Holiday card with a yearly update letter. I thought it was such a great idea because a lot of times it is one of the few times we communicate with some friends. Each year I say I'm not going to do it because it's time consuming but then I cave and do it! I do love family traditions and your parents sound wonderful!