Back in college, I made them all by hand, late at night, half-dizzy from the Xylene fumes drifting from my deluxe Pantone marker set: simple, joyful, athletic dancing Santas. I tucked them into my professors’ mailboxes along with my final papers. I slid them under my hall-mates’ doors. I mailed them to my aunts and uncles. I handed them to puzzled cafeteria workers in the dining hall. Every now and then, one of those cards will find its way back to me, as did one this, when a longtime friend returned it at a dinner party, more than twenty years later.
For all I know, many of them were tossed away in their envelopes, unopened. But it never occurred to me to stop, even as the scope of the annual project crept steadily upward. When the list expanded past 200, I decided to stick with a single design and found a cheap offset print shop willing to deal with my small order. I went to that shop for a more than a decade with camera-ready illustrations, painstakingly drawn on sheets of typing paper with my precious Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pen and augmented by liberal concretions of White-Out. The shopkeeper, who kept an uncaged parrot that flew around shrieking indignant greetings and cries for help, always seemed glad to see me.
The first few years, I hand-colored each a black-and-white card. The most challenging year was 1987, when I drew a calendar, each panel laboriously hand-colored over a month of evenings. The work was so hand-crampingly intense and the cards so precious that I gave each one away, on the theory that they were too valuable to keep. My mother-in-law had one on her refrigerator for years, but I’ve not seen it a long while.
The illustrations always referenced our lives, although I never included straightforward information. No mention of graduations, accomplishments, or awards, or sorrows. In the 1993 card, I hinted at a pregnancy by drawing a large angel-baby above the heads of the girls (a fourth stocking hangs from the fireplace on the card’s back.) Some years the drawings or text was by one of the children; most years it was mine.
The 1995 card featured a simple nonfiction story that begins mid-sentence: …kicking through the wet leaves in her shiny new red shoes, she said, “Mommy and Daddy? Can we go back to Christmas sometime?” It was only then that we realized Caeli believed that Christmas was a magical place we’d once visited together. A perpetual party with music, gingerbread, velvet dresses, grandparents, cousins, jingle bells, elves, and candlelight. But how to find our way back? [Click to view full text.]
From this sentimental (it still chokes me up to read it) offering to mini-zines, haiku-cards, and a non-card (“Our Excuse for a Card”) that detailed all the reasons we had not created a card that year:
“…Somebody was singing flat. The lights were on all night. We were feeling very peppy. The bus went by without stopping. It was delivered to the wrong address. We were teaching the kitten to play the violin. We lost the charger. There was a circus in town. Our shoes were too tight. We got lost in the woods. It was a very long line. We ran out of sugar. We ran out of time. We couldn’t help ourselves. We were driving around in a blizzard. We had forgotten the rules of football. There was a loud crash in the hallway in the middle of the night. Nobody wanted to sit in the back seat. We were upholstering chickens.…”
[Click to view full text.]
The Card in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, our tour de force, was a footnoted PoMo meta-card, inspired by our family discussions around the fireplace over Thanksgiving break: ‘…“I urge you to consider the spec(tac)ular (re)engerization of past(a)iche in the context of lingui(ni)stic transparen(t)cy!” declaimed Madeline, as Calla frantically hunted for her earbuds, and, not finding them backed slowly from the room. “You are arguing by example!” cried Lauren, and not for the first time, her voice hopscotching an octave to be heard above the sudden explosion of violin music in the corner of the room. Caeli looked up briefly from her Paganini caprice. “What does that even mean?” she said, and when no one answered she plunged back into the music…’ [Click to view full text]
When my daughters were small, they clamored for the privilege of illustrating or writing the text. Now they are too involved with their lives to throw themselves into the project. And yet, they resist any suggestion that we let the project drop. Every Thanksgiving, I badger them for card ideas. In 2012, after days of brainstorming, we decided the card would be about glassblowing: Santa-as-gaffer, blowing mini glass Santas, assisted by elves. But Madeline was too busy to draw it—and I was too out-of-practice to handle such a complicated line drawing. (Would it look like he was blowing bubbles, or smoking?) At the last minute, Lauren came to the rescue with a poem, “January” (earlier this year she’d published set of poems, “June”, about two consecutive Junes). The poem began:
Hard to trade a sure good thing,
but we do it every year. Warmth falls away,
each time a fresh surprise. Then the first snowfall
is an intricate kiss— a ghost outline which fills
until the entire city is one softened line.
The next idea was to encase her poem in a wall of prose, so that the prose, contiguous with the poetry, would lend the verse a complementary, perhaps brighter meaning. It would be a puzzle to work out, a puzzle to read. But I knew that with some patience I could pull it off with Photoshop. Hours, days later I finally uploaded pdf files to a digital print shop, fretting that the low-contrast color scheme I’d chosen might not look as good on in person as on the screen (does it ever?) The printers sent me a sample through postal mail—doable because, unlike with offset printing, there is no volume discount. I made a slight adjustment to the bleed lines and re-uploaded the files. The card in the age of digital reproduction. The results weren’t bad. “Best card ever,” Larry said loyally (he says that every year.)
Over the years our publication process shifted from monkish hand-reproduction, to offset printing, to digital xeroxing at Staples (for an 8-page ‘zine, complete with a recipe for Cranberry Tea Loaf, written an illustrated by college-age Lauren), to full-out digital printing. I’ve traded in my Rapidograph pens for digital design tools. The manual SLR camera has been replaced by an iPhone 6s. Not long ago I was walking through my local Staples store when their copy shop manager flagged me down to say hello. I was surprised to recognize him as the former owner of the offset print shop we’d used for all those years. Hardly anyone does offset printing anymore, and his business had to shut down. Now that he works for Staples his parrot has to stay at home. I felt a twinge of guilt—just as I’d felt guilty when I stopped hand-drawing every card, or hand-coloring them, or drawing and laying out the originals on paper.
This year I almost didn’t make a card. The kids are older now—they aren’t kids, really, and I don’t want to keep up a fossilized tradition just because I don’t know how to stop. The day after Thanksgiving, an eerily warm, damp afternoon, as we trudged together through the leaf-scattered woods, Calla reminded us all that it was the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 “Four Girls” portrait I’d made of the kids lying head-to-head in the leaves, an offset reproduction of a silver gelatin print from my own darkroom. Ten years later when the girls were mostly teenagers, I’d made a second portrait of them with a digital SLR and had that card offset-printed in black-and-white. And now another ten years had passed. How was it possible that ten, and twenty years had gone by? Where will we be in ten more years?
My daughters lay down in the leaves, in the same configuration they’d made in 2005, and I snapped them with my iPhone. Inside the card, a no-brainer: the original silver gelatin print, scanned and digitized, and the little flash non-fiction story from 1995. If this is the last card, it has a sense of cycle, and closure. (But I suspect we’ll come up with another one next year.)
These cards are my only point of connection with many distant friends and relatives. As I cull through the list in early December, crossing off the names of the dead, it’s a small, second mourning. When an envelope comes back from the post office marked “Moved: no forwarding address”, I realize we may have lost that person forever. On the other hand, adding new friends to the inventory is a tiny celebration.
Each Christmas, when we decorate the tree, we unpack the envelope of cards we’ve saved. The earliest ones are lost, but we have one from 1986, and then a copy from each year beginning with 1989. The gallery presents a quirky retrospective of our lives, truer to who we are than our medical records, our stacks of family photo albums, our Facebook timelines. If we stop making cards, does it mean we stop, too?
–Karen Rile, December 24, 2012
Updated December 15, 2015