In our house, the holidays start around Oct. 1. That’s when the leaves change color and my wife heads outdoors with the camera and kids to create the ultimate Christmas card picture. When I was growing up, people sent each other cards of the Madonna and child or Santa and his reindeer, though I did have a rich uncle whose card every year featured his Chagall. But almost nobody sent pictures of their children. Now everybody does. And not just snapshots. These images are as meticulously crafted as any Annie Leibowitz celebrity shoot for Vanity Fair .
Typically, they show the children-freshly scrubbed, of course-frolicking on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard or rounding up cattle at some dude ranch out West. The pictures arrive in high-quality holly or teddy bear decorated paper frames from Tiffany & Company, Cartier or Dempsey & Carroll that go for several bucks a pop-society photographer not included. As a form of reverse snobbism, we continue to use the card-and-photo-in-one deal from our local Fotomat, which has undoubtedly lowered us in the estimation of some of our peers.
There are many ways New Yorkers judge each other-among them apartment address, level of giving to their child’s preschool capital improvement campaign, and the amount of ocean frontage they own in the Hamptons. But the exquisite holiday card photograph has also become an imperative. It’s your opportunity, once a year, to show your friends how beautiful your kids are and how great everything is going in your life-that all those rumors about Johnny having to repeat kindergarten, Morgan Stanley canning Bill, and the marriage imploding are patently false. Just look at the pictures! Look at the boys in their blazers and the girls in their Jacardi dresses. Regard how confident and handsome and unrehearsed they appear.
My friend Ann has been working on her Christmas card since last March. That’s when she placed the winning bid at a charity auction for a tour of NBC and a meeting with Tom Brokaw. “I went there specifically with the idea of getting a picture for my Christmas card,” she explained.
The card features the anchorman with Ann’s son Daniel (though the 9-year-old refused to don the Santa’s helper cap his mother had brought along) over the greeting, “We’ve got news for you.”
“I’m a little bit afraid people will say, ‘Who’s that middle-aged man with Daniel?’” Ann confided. “But you can see TV monitors in the background and everything.”
One of my favorite cards featured my friends Bob and Christina and their daughters as “the Pantyheads.” They were as wholesome and attractive a family as you’d ever want to meet except that they were wearing underwear on their heads. Christina, who stressed that the garments had just come out of the dryer, attributes her subversive attitude to all those smarmy cards she gets of friends’ kids in their little velvet outfits and also as a subtle form of rebellion against her mother, one of the pioneers of family Christmas photography who forced Christina into many an embarrassing tableau as a child.
“At one point we did a whole Nativity scene,” she remembered. “My baby brother was Jesus and I was Mary. My sister was an angel and the other boys were the three kings. She had to pay us to do it. It was torture.”
My own mother’s card remains perhaps the most complicated Christmas card of all time. Luckily, we weren’t forced to appear in it, but we didn’t see my mother for weeks at a time around the holiday season as she hid in her bedroom constructing them. The card featured all of us on a sled, or stagecoach or hot air balloon-a different mode of transportation every year-and came with slots where my mom inserted cartoon cutouts of each member of the family, including the dog, parakeet and goldfish, with their names printed on their respective cutouts for easy identification.
Perhaps it’s the angst that surrounded her card that prevents me from getting too involved with ours. My one and only attempt to style our card-successfully, I thought-was vetoed by my wife. It depicted a rugged country scene with our daughter Lucy and dog Stinko about to go hunting in matching orange flame vests. My spouse denies that the subject’s lack of seriousness had anything to do with her decision to kill the picture. “It just wasn’t good enough,” she stated when I revisited the subject recently.
Maybe she’s right. If the people who receive our cards are anything like us, they scrutinize the pictures as closely as the Pentagon does the latest U2 photos of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. In fact, one recipient commented on how impressed she was with the width of our floorboards.
In the same vein, I recently heard somebody grousing about the Christmas card New Yorker editor Tina Brown sent out last year. “She does stuff like the holiday in Mustique,” snarled this lady who would allow herself to be identified only as a misanthropic Upper East Side mother. “It was really a narcissistic photo album in three parts with everybody on vacation looking Town & Country glamorous. She was in a bathing suit, which boggles the mind in a Christmas card.”
I called The New Yorker to verify the story. “What they do is a montage of pictures throughout the year,” explained Maurie Perl, the magazine’s spokesman. “We don’t send them to everybody, just intimate friends.”
Ms. Perl couldn’t confirm whether Mustique was one of their destinations. “I don’t know if Tina has ever been to Mustique,” she said. “It could have been Bermuda.” And what of the bathing suit? “I’m not aware of any photograph of a bathing suit,” Ms. Perl said. “It may be some form of beach wear.”
I say, “Bravo, Tina!” Frankly, I’d much rather get a picture of her in a bikini-though unfortunately I’m not on her mailing list-than of somebody’s snotty kids in angel outfits standing in front of a Duraflame. We need more grown-ups in Christmas cards. Let’s see how everybody’s aging. Let’s see if the wives are keeping their figures and if the husbands are losing their hair.
As for our card, the foliage shoot didn’t produce a winner. It rarely does. My wife’s latest idea is to dress up our daughters in black leotards and wreath them in garlands of silver tinsel. “We do have a history of great pictures,” she insisted as she perused the latest roll of film. “People tell me our pictures have stayed on their refrigerators for years, which I think is the test of a good Christmas card.”
The main problem with the most recent batch of photographs was that many of them were out of focus. It may have had something to do with the fact that my wife took them indoors without a flash and with a dead camera battery. “Out of focus is O.K.,” she insisted.
I asked her how many rolls of film she’d used so far. “I’m not telling you,” she answered. She told me to look at the bright side. “This was the first year our kids were old enough that neither one of them had to cry.”