Hey, How About We Just Let Christmas Cards Die?

It’s getting harder and harder to find comfort and joy these days.

christmas cards

Do we really need to send Christmas cards every year? | Photograph by Clint Blowers, family card photograph by Flashy Mama Photography/Jen Scott

My dad retired from his job when he turned 60, which was way too young. I know it was too young because he spent the remaining 20-some years of his life plotting the Christmas letter he’d always wanted to send. We weren’t a family that sent Christmas letters, mind you; that was part of the inspiration. Three score years of reading other people’s chipper annual roundups of all the glad tidings they could eke out of life’s existential despair left Dad proposing his own less varnished takes on a fictionalized family’s travails.

“How about this,” he’d propose around Thanksgiving, when the first holiday missives from friends started to dribble in. “‘We’re all of us looking forward to May, as that’s when Cousin Joe will get sprung from the pen. We’re sure he’ll be a changed man after seven long years. But just in case, when you come for a visit, don’t leave the keys in your car!’”

Or he might veer in a different direction: “‘Selma’s doing better after her recent fall. The doctors say she could hold on for another year if she’d just quit the drinking and smoking. Selma says they can shove it and she’ll outlive us all. Skol!’”

It’s not that his friends weren’t important to him; he was scrupulous about maintaining contact with old neighbors, classmates, distant relations. It was the relentless cheeriness of those Christmas summaries that got on his nerves. Judging by the mimeographed (and later Xeroxed, and later still computer-generated) pages tucked into the cards that arrived at Dad’s house bearing images of fat-cheeked Santas or spry cardinals on snow-drifted branches, life was a jolly caravan of fun and games upon which karma never descended, one where, in Garrison Keillor’s famous phrase, all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking, and all the children were above average. The problem is, if you live long enough, you realize that’s not true.

I’ve now lived long enough.

Twenty-nineteen has been a tough year for all of us, one that’s sapped the joie de vivre from stouter hearts than mine. The psycho in the White House and his dead-eyed bride. The Amazon rain forest on fire. Those interminable Democratic candidate debates. Sean Spicer on Dancing With the Stars. Like other Luddites who still send paper holiday cards, I now face the prospect of distilling 12 months of weary despair into an upbeat message of New Year’s hope and joy. Oh, sure, I could just sign a curt “Love to all! Sandy and Doug.” But I’m a writer. People expect a little more. I don’t do the full-fledged Christmas-letter thing; some Hingston family traditions remain sacrosanct, like never, ever visiting anyplace Disney. But I usually do pen a brief, witty summary of How Things Have Been Going Around Here inside my cards.

To complicate matters, I’ve been particularly unsocial this past year. Normally I make a point of visiting every summer with my assorted groups of far-flung friends — old college roommates, neighbors from pre-parenthood, a lovely bunch of buddies dating from middle school. I love the easy way we slip back into conversation after months-long hiatuses as though we were just off in the kitchen getting another beer. That part’s still easy, but the rest of traveling is increasingly hard. I have to remember to tote along all the cables and plugs and chargers any overnight journey entails, not to mention counting out and packing up the vast array of medications that are just barely keeping me alive. Who knows what damage a skipped dose of atorvastatin might wreak, or what ghastly microbes the lack of my daily probiotic could unleash?

Alas, it turns out that going to visit my friends might be better for my health than the probiotics. Scientists are falling all over themselves proving the value of friendships, especially as we age. Somewhat counterintuitively, a recent study showed that if you sacrifice your social circle to move across the country and live with your daughter, you’ll be less happy and healthy than if you stay put and go on having those lunches with your girlfriends. As physician Kelli Harding explained it recently in her book The Rabbit Effect, “There’s a social dimension to health that we’ve completely overlooked in our scramble to find the best and most cutting-edge personalized medical care.” The fact that a staggering 30 percent of millennials say they “always or often” feel lonely, compared to just 15 percent of my boomer cohort, might explain why we’re living long enough to completely ruin Social Security for them. That’s what friends are for.

My holiday messages were much easier to compose when my nest wasn’t empty and I could riff on the doings of our offspring. These days, though, it’s just Doug and me and the cat. And while I do know folks who include pet info in their year-end wrap-ups, you have to be human to make my recaps. Which brings up a point of etiquette. We actually do have a human addition to the family — my first grandchild, the most amazingly brilliant and beguiling infant ever born on this Earth. Well, she’s all that to us, but not, I fear, to anyone else. There’s also the issue that to my knowledge, nobody else among my Christmas-card friends has an adult kid who is married and stable and sane and has successfully reproduced. Some of my old gang’s offspring, in fact, suffer from — what’s the phrase again? “Failure to launch.” And that puts me in a quandary. As much as I adore my granddaughter, running on about her under these circumstances feels unseemly, like I’m rubbing my joy in less-smiley faces.

It also feels like tempting fate. I do still have an unsettled son, though he did move into an apartment of his own this year [pause for wild victory dance].

The heart of my problem, I guess, is that I take this annual card ritual too seriously. If I had been more conscientious in visiting my old friends this year, they’d already know where I’m at — professionally, emotionally, in terms of family — and I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to produce a summation that’s succinct but also low-key and non-boastful and amusing and that also remembers to mention Doug this time, for a change.

Speaking of Doug, one reason we didn’t make our usual visitation rounds this past summer is that he confided to me that he finds hanging with my middle-school girlfriends awkward. “Why?” I asked in astonishment.

“In case you haven’t noticed, they’re all rich.”

This happens to be true. It’s partly a result of us all growing up drenched in privilege in Doylestown, but it’s also due to luck. One of us married a computer pioneer who made a fortune off of — well, I’m not sure; he invented something or other. One married a fancy doctor; another became a lawyer; two more made it in the financial world. As a result of these happy circumstances, we all gather together at one or another of their luxe vacation homes — on the Cape, on a lake in New Hampshire, on the coast of Maine … I’ve always considered this a major bonus of these friendships; Doug and I are able to hang out in much nicer surroundings than we ordinarily do without having to reciprocate the hospitality, all for the price of a nice wedge of brie or some other hostess gift. But it turns out he’s not as comfy as I am with squatter status. Of course, he doesn’t remember when Barb was a pigeon-toed wing on our very bad field hockey team, or Ann was flailing around in chemistry class, or Laurie’s super-awkward first crush. He sort of got dropped into the play in the middle of the second act, and what I still see as comedy — who’d have guessed these clowns would do so well in life?! — looks like high drama to him.

“I just feel like we’re the poor relations,” he grumbled.

“We are the poor relations,” I said patiently. “But money isn’t everything. Besides. We have a grandchild, and that makes us winners.”

“Does it?” Apparently not everyone employs the same metrics in the running tally of who’s ahead in the Game of Life.

Then again, there are different ways to define “winning.” I find a Yeats poem popping into my head all the time now. It begins:

A pity beyond all telling
Is hid at the heart of love.

It’s basically about paranoia, and it describes me to a tee. Are my daughter and her husband really going to take that child to the mall? To the Shore? To Africa for New Year’s? What are they, crazy? Can I get Child Services to intervene? She could catch a cold. Cholera! Ebola! Airplanes are chariots of death. What if their flight’s a 737 Max? Though I fixate on travel disasters, I’m pretty sure I’m just deflecting from my awareness that I’m never going to find out how this grandchild’s story ends.

I know that on some level, this was also true with my kids — that, barring some truly awful calamity, I would die before they did. But that would be a long, long way down the road. We’d live leisurely lives together in the meantime; I’d see them off to school and then college, watch as they established careers, got their first apartments, found love …

I never really got so far as “had children of their own” in these musings. It all seemed so far in the future. And then we got into the thick of it — the Scout meetings, the slumber parties, the soccer games, the dog walks, the homework, the citations for public intoxication — and it was over in a blink. Dust our hands off and shrug: all done!

Now they’re grown, and the house sometimes echoes in their absence. They have their own places. Visiting them there is so strange, like encountering someone you know in unexpected surroundings — your car mechanic, say, in your dentist’s waiting room: This isn’t where you belong! Their furnishings are mysterious, alien: Really? You like that spare, boxy sofa? That’s the paint color you chose?

Someday, my granddaughter will have her own house. Will there still be houses? Car mechanics? An Earth? I’ve become obsessive lately about climate change; I imagine her frying to a crisp, dying of thirst, crawling through the rubble of a tornado-ravaged city, joining a gaggle of battered survivors wearily boarding the last spaceship headed for Mars. There are people who turn off the TV when movies get frightening. I’m not like that; once I start something, I stick with it. That’s what life is like since my granddaughter’s birth: a wonderful, terrifying movie that I’ll never see the end of. I find it unspeakably brave of my daughter and her husband to have procreated in these circumstances. But I guess parenthood has always been a leap of faith.

Babies are shiny and new. My old friends, when I do see them now, look so … old. Who are these people? In my mind, we’re all forever fixed at age 21 or so, golden and glowing. We needed so little sleep. We could drink so much wine. We sat cross-legged on the floor and popped up without groaning. We didn’t have heart trouble or blood pressure woes. There was still so much more life ahead of us than behind.

Being with them makes me realize: I’m old. Oh, not on my last legs, not by a long shot. Though of course, you never know. I do some freelance copy-editing for a college alumni magazine, and I always pause over the batches of obituaries, the complexities of life summed up in a single paragraph, stripped down to the barest minimum, the opposite of a chatty Christmas letter: Worked for Merck & Co. for 47 years. Loved the outdoors. Predeceased by a son. I want more, always, a filling-out of those skeletal remains: 47 years with one company? Yikes! What was it about the outdoors you loved — hiking? Hunting? Fishing? How did your son die — so sad! — and when?

Speaking of which, my dad’s generation is almost all gone now. At Christmas-card time, in my address book, I cross out the houses I still picture his friends in, then the smaller places they shift into — the apartments or rooms in nursing homes — and then the names themselves. No wonder this annual ritual can seem so grim. How long before it’s my own generation getting erased?

Every year, I’m tempted to streamline the process, eliminate the folks for whom Christmas cards are our sole remaining point of contact: the next-door neighbors from our first house in the city; the lifelong bachelor Doug played in a band with in the ’80s; the girl from college I haven’t seen in more than four decades. With people like that, there’s an awkward annual dance: What if I don’t send them a card and they send me one? Then I’ll have to rush to get one out in time, and they’ll know I was going to drop them. My middle-school friend Ann circumvents this by not sending any cards until January, after the last stragglers are in. She always was smart.

In the end, no matter how tempting, I never cross out anyone who’s still breathing. However briefly our lives intertwined, the threads are still there, part of the rich tapestry, yada yada yada. What, I should cut them off after all these years? For the price of a stamp?

It’s half a century now since I moved to Doylestown and met my girlfriends. At Christmastime, we used to take the train into the city and feel so worldly! We’d shop for holiday gifts at Wanamaker’s and Gimbels, eat lunch out of the ornate little Automat windows, laugh and tease one another mercilessly, which we still do. None of us thought any further into the future than the coming summer’s visits to the Shore.

And now here we are, five years past our 40th high-school reunion. In my heart, I know my old friends will forgive me for the grandchild. They’ve already absolved me of worse. And in July, with or without Doug, I’ll trek to the chic summer home of whoever’s stuck hosting next year, because he’s wrong. I am rich, impossibly so.

Meantime, though, it’s Christmas! With a baby! I guess I’ll have to put up a goddamn tree. As for the message on my cards, a couple of quotations should do it:

Winter is coming.
Unto us a child is born.

Published as “Auld Lang Sigh” in the December 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.