Extra Pulp: Wild Cards

Laura Anders Lee finds that the ordeal of taking the perfect Christmas card photo is a pain worth bearing.

David Vallejo

December is already the busiest month, with end-of-year office deadlines, final exams, holiday shopping, decorating, baking, parties, pageants—you name it. Then we pile on the Christmas cards.

A Facebook or Instagram post won’t do—not in the proper South where I’m from. We must produce a physical card, that we hand address and stamp, so it will arrive to our friends and family in their actual mailboxes—not to be confused with their e-mail inboxes.

The perfect Christmas card begins with capturing the perfect family photo. This year, we broke our own world record in photo taking. In 2018, we took more than 1 trillion photographs, mostly using our smartphones. I personally increased my cell phone data plan just to store all my thousands of photos. So why is it, that at the end of the year, we burden ourselves with getting one more shot?

In our house, getting a family Christmas photo is an impossible quest. It involves wrangling too squirmy boys into nice clothes against their will, then bribing them with toys and treats to pose sweetly for the camera. It’s a miserable experience, really, and I’m quite certain it’s payback for what my brother and I put our own parents through. (The Saturday before Easter my sophomore year in high school, I dyed my hair red to look like Claire Danes. I ruined the Easter photos, according to my mother.)

When my sons, Anders and William, were 3 and 5, it was the hottest November on record in Central Florida. Mal à propos, my husband, Bryan, and I dressed them in matching plaid flannel shirts and headed to downtown Celebration to take Christmas pictures. Outside in the 90-degree sun, our subjects quickly began melting down.

William had a classic 3-year-old tantrum over the long-sleeve shirt (a foreign object to an Orlando kid), and to make matters worse, one with buttons and a collar. He acted as if we’d trapped him inside a straitjacket. Manipulated by our bribes, William eventually found his smile and cooperated for the camera.

But then, Anders started protesting. He had been fine in the solo shots, but refused to take one picture with his little brother and would not wipe the scowl off his face. The more Anders frowned, the more Bryan raised his voice, and the more my nerves frayed. Anders wasn’t budging, despite our promises of Transformers and Kilwin’s ice cream. Finally, he burst into tears. Bryan was tensely pacing the boardwalk, and I was sopping up Anders’ runny nose with my shirt when Bryan’s boss walked up with his new girlfriend. “This is the family I was telling you about,” he said.

There we stood, embarrassed by the unexpected encounter and our awkward first impression. We decided to call it quits and took the boys home. The next day we discovered Anders had strep throat, and there we’d been forcing him to smile in the hot sun!

We never got a photo of the boys together, so I made a collage of their best individual shots. Our patient photographer miraculously got some pretty adorable ones. I felt a weight lifted as I finally dropped them in the mail, thinking about how excruciating the process had been.

So why do we put ourselves through the drama? Is it really worth it? I think so.

I go through the trouble of making Christmas cards because I want to remember my family at its best, and especially now in this digital age, I want a tangible memento. Raising kids is hard. There are constant needs, incessant fighting and colossal messes on an hourly basis. But at the end of every year, there’s nothing quite like reminiscing about the highlights. They’re a little taller, another baby tooth is gone, they’re just a little more grown up. The happy memories and milestones are well worth celebrating.

When we send out Christmas cards, we get to filter the harsh truths of parenthood. We deserve to capture our family at its finest, for our friends, our family and ourselves, to know that we’ve survived another year. When I sit down to make my Christmas card, I have the power to choose my very favorite smile—the one where Anders’ face is all lit up and the one that shows the sparkle in William’s blue eyes—and I get to preserve that moment forever.

Every day in December, I walk to my own mailbox with excitement. Gleaming through the bills and unwanted catalogs are brightly colored envelopes containing the smiling faces of my relatives, friends and their children. There on a 5x7 card, life with kids is picture-perfect.

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