Holiday Card History

My grandparents’ Christmas card, circa 1950

I grew up watching my father, following his father’s example, coming up each year with handmade Christmas cards that nearly always included a family photograph.  They were both avid amateur photographers and would corral and cajole my siblings and me into a studio-like set in the living room with carefully positioned lights and a camera mounted on a tripod that would be aimed at a scene of dressed-up children surrounding their proud parents.   This often occurred at our family Thanksgiving gathering, allowing just enough time for my mother to get prints made, mounted into cards (often with her hand-stenciled or stamped cover designs), personal greetings inscribed, and envelopes addressed and stamped, all before the week of Christmas.

I fell into the same fascination with photography and even assisted in the creation of some of the cards.  My grandfather once asked for my help with one of his concepts:  a shot of him with my grandmother peering out a window on a wintery day. But it was not as simple as that.  He brought in a spare storm window, detailed it with Christmas decorations and flocked snow, mounted it on a sawhorse in the family room, put incandescent lights on one side and aimed the other at the outdoor daylight from the actual window.  He then positioned his subjects (himself and Grandma) at just the right position to get that wonderful mix of outdoor blue-sky-on-snow light and indoor hearth-and-candlelight.  My job was to run the camera.  I was sixteen and this was my first exposure to such high artistic production values.

A few samples of those traditional greeting cards might explain the natural urge to continue the tradition.  They are both corny and endearing, the perfect mix to express your affection to the ones you care about. 

Our family Christmas photo for 1964, taken with a Polaroid camera, then reproduced and inserted into cards.

I continued that tradition when I branched out from the family and created my own. I have a collection of the Christmas cards we sent (later, they became New Years cards, which provided an extra week to get them out). The early years were simply snapshots.  In subsequent years, I used the card as a vehicle for artistic or technical experiments, an attempt to find new and novel ways to convey our sentiments.  I was pleased to learn that some of our card recipients actually saved them!

My collection has become an “accidental” chronicle of the lives we lived, one snapshot per year. But lives are far more complex than depicted by an annual family portrait.  For those who send the undeservedly mocked annual “Christmas newsletter”, you have exactly the documentation to augment the Christmas picture; I hope you have kept them for posterity.

In recent years, I have provided annotations (captions) to the pictures I send out. This seems to bridge the gap between the cryptic snapshot and the full report; some context, but not so much as to invoke tldr reactions.

My full history of holiday cards would be of little interest outside my immediate family, but I am happy to share our current holiday card. Best wishes to you in the next year!

At Lone Pine CA, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. See the full card, with annotations.

4 thoughts on “Holiday Card History

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