The Ghosts of Christmas Cards Past










I’m sure by now you’ve all heard about the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s questionable Christmas card. And if not, and this is the first time you’re seeing it, you’re welcome. In an attempt to support the city’s wildlife museum, which is, apparently, a monument to the art of taxidermy, Mayor Jorge Santini  had his family photographed with various dead animals arranged in exciting tableaux, including a leopard “killing” an antelope, and a penguin whispering in the ear of his son (let’s hope he’s not taking lessons from the Son of Sam’s dog).

A Christmas elf had the good sense to post said photos on Awkard Family Photos website, where they went viral, getting the attention they so richly deserved. Reaction on the web has been swift, intense, and repetitive. People have been tweeting the photo along with captions including: “Wrong, wrong, wrong” and “Weird, weird, weird.” But I think any Christmas card–especially one that gets you talking, thinking, or best of all, laughing-–is oh, so right.

My favorite thing to do in the wind-up to Christmas is to sit in my parents’ tree-lit living room, inhaling the scent of pine needles and laughing at the holiday cards they’ve received. Often I’m laughing in joy at  the photo of a wedding or a new baby, or in mirth (they have one friend who draws amusing cartoons around his and his wife’s heads, putting them in interesting predicaments like rushing downhill on sleds or floating in life preservers in the ocean. Another pal sent a photo of herself with Tony Soprano and the comment “Hanukah? Christmas? Kwanzaa? Fuhggedabout it.”). But just as often I’m laughing in horror, not so much at an awkward family photo (I’m not on the Santini’s Christmas card list) but usually at the text parents write, obliviously, and inadvertently, humiliating their children. One of my parents’ friends described a family trip they took along with their married daughter and son-in-law and their other, single daughter. “Jenny sometimes felt like a fifth wheel, but it was a lovely vacation,” they wrote, turning what I’m sure their daughter thought of as a nice, all-expense-paid trip with her family into an announcement to all that they saw their youngest daughter as a hopeless spinster. (Fear not; a few years later Santa dropped a card with a photo of Jenny’s wedding down the chimney.)

I’ve read cards bragging about stellar SAT scores (a delight for proud parents, a nightmare for shy kids). But the worst text I’ve ever seen described a seventh-grade boy’s multiple accomplishments and then added, “and yes, he has discovered girls.”

Which leads me to the first rule of holiday card and newsletter writing, which I’d like to offer as a public service: Puberty has no place in your holiday newsletter. If you have a pre-teen, it is already all over your photos. Please, do your sensitive child a favor and ignore any references to a social life and/or physical developments. This will not only save your relationship with your child, it will spare me, the reader, from flashbacks to my own awkward years.

In a similar vein, vacation shots on holiday cards are great. Bikini photos, not so much. I say this as a person who finally had to tell her mother I didn’t want to see my breasts on any more holiday card newsletters. She, the creator of the newsletter, hasn’t worn a bathing suit since the Nixon administration, despite countless summers on Greek beaches. And yet it actually took some work to convince her that bikini shots of me and my sister frolicking (or eating fried calamari) did not serve to make anyone’s Christmas merrier.

While we’re on the topic of body image, you should know that if I receive a photo of just your children, not you and your children, I’m going to assume it’s because you don’t want me to look at the card and see how much weight you’ve put on. (That’s harsh, and not in the spirit of Christian charity and lovingkindness, but I’m telling it like it is.) Your kids are adorable, but you’re the one I went to college with; I want to see your smiling face, too! Of course, this year, our own Christmas card features just the delightful baby Amalía, but that’s because it’s doubling as a birth announcement. And because I don’t want you to see how much weight I’ve put on.

But the biggest faux pas you can make holiday cardwise, as far as I’m concerned, is not sending one at all. I LOVE getting regular mail (in fact, when I see old British TV shows or read Agatha Christie books and everyone’s rushing to make the morning post so their note is delivered in the evening post, I feel the most delicious combination of envy and delight). I LOVE seeing photos of people I may not have seen all year, and hearing what they’ve been up to lately. I find vacation photos of places I haven’t been to inspiring. But most of all I love the feeling of connection, the sense of human contact that comes from seeing handwriting, or tearing open an envelope someone else sealed, knowing it has news of a loved one. If it’s beautiful, I get choked up. If it’s somehow dishy or embarrassing I get an evil thrill.

To me, Christmas cards are better than Christmas gifts–they’re always surprising, and you never worry that the giver spent too much on you, or have to feign liking something you can’t use or will never wear. Opening a holiday card is opening a window onto someone else’s life. When you receive a card, you know someone thought of you as they addressed it, just as you’re thinking of them reading it. There’s something magical about the power of mail like that, the way it makes the world feel a little bit smaller.

In the spirit of sharing, I’m including our own Awkward Family Photo, featuring a wailing child dressed as a turkey who fears she’s about to be eaten by a grinning band of fire-worshippers. It’s no leopard attacking an antelope; but maybe next year. In the meantime, I wish Mayor Santini the most feliz of navidades.



  1. Neil Cunningham says:

    Wonderful piece, I so much enjoy reading your writing. Can’t wait for the new book.
    Very best of Holidays to you and your family.
    Amalia is beautiful.


  2. Thanks, Neil! I so appreciate your support. Great to hear from you and happy holidays and best wishes for a fabulous 2012,

  3. Robin Paulson says:

    It’s about time someone threw a grenade into those family photo/newsletters people feel so compelled to include with their holiday cards. I have mixed feelings about them. I enjoy getting dish on family and friends who I rarely see, but I always skip over anything inspirational or generic. Let’s get to the nitty gritty specifics ASAP! And I have a particular pet peeve about families who try to make you believe they are perfect, their kids, their careers, their vacations, their family reunions, and the awards bestowed upon them by their respective grateful communities for all the contributions made by these perfect families. Puhleeze! And BTW, the 35 matching Hawaiian shirts from 2T to XXL we can live without. I agree the cards featuring three grandkids, no adults, and signed with illegible first names only are irritating. Who actually are you, and where’s the satisfaction in keeping my boyish figure for yet another year if I can’t relish the expanded girth of you, a woman who dissed me at the last corporate party? Now I realize kids are usually humiliated by what parents include in these letters and photos. I strongly believe it’s a little revenge that parents enjoy in the “I only hope you grow up to have a kid just like you” vein. It’s a dwindling attempt to hang onto a scrap of control over the lives of kids who have flown the coop and taken over control. Okay, you blow me off every time I try to offer an opinion? Just wait till next year’s Christmas card. Heh heh.

  4. Heh heh heh, indeed Robin! OR how about, “we’re all just sitting here on the lawn in jeans and white button downs. All of us. Just so happened. We all have fabulous taste, after all, and great minds think alike.

  5. Robin Paulson says:

    We just got Joanie’s Christmas photos and newsletter. I couldn’t help but but notice Marina’s cleavage shot with Amalía. Youthful breasts still abound in Joanie’s holiday photos!

  6. Joanie considers cleavage shots the gift that keeps on giving.

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