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I’ve sent a holiday card every year for the past 17 years. It’s time to stop

It's bittersweet, but I'm putting an end to this Christmas tradition.
Family holiday card being pulled apart by candy canes
After nearly two decades of sending a detailed holiday card to friends and family, one writer shares why her tradition is coming to a bittersweet end, and how she's thinking more this year about the "unsents and the unsaids." TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Since my husband and I were first married in 2005, we have sent holiday photo cards every year to our nearest and dearest. Our photo usually entailed some manner of theatrics and a caption with a bad pun. The year I was pregnant with our firstborn, for example, my husband held a tape measure around my pregnant belly, a contractor’s pencil resting on his ears, with the attendant message of “Hope your holidays are measuring up!” We have been an absolute embarrassment to ourselves, and eventually our offspring became co-conspirators who embraced the tradition as well. 

I have kept a copy of each card for the last 17 years and compiled them into an album. As I page through the album, the pictures and accompanying notes tell a basic highlight reel of our family story. There have been additions (babies in 2008 and 2010, and a puppy in 2018), subtractions (job losses and downsizing homes), and multiplications of stresses and friends and joys and sorrows, like most any family experiences.

But this year, there came a division. My husband and I made the difficult decision to split up this past summer. Although our future together — or apart — remains uncertain, as the holidays approach, I am reminded of the shared traditions I will grieve. I must accept that the album of holiday cards may not add any further pages. Where I will save on stamps and shipments from Shutterfly, I will mourn the absence of this ritual that was deeply meaningful for me. 

The holiday card tradition for me was never about show-and-tell. While the braggadocios Christmas card is a trope so many of us love to hate, I always tried to do the opposite with our family’s. The humble-braggy form letter that waxes on about promotions and new real estate acquisitions and perfect potty training and SAT scores sends an essential message of “Look at us!” When I settled into designing and sending our holiday cards, I tried mightily to cultivate a mindset of “Look at you all!” However, I realized how great the temptations for virtue signaling and self-indulgence could be. 

As a trained calligrapher, holiday cards have been as much a hobby of mine as a professional expression. Every year, I would begin paring my carefully curated spreadsheet of addresses to a determined number. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I would begin addressing the cards by hand with a dipped ink calligraphy pen. My husband and children would often tell me that I had a big, stupid smile on my face as I addressed each card. The slow art of calligraphy allowed me to think about each name on my list, and I would smile as I recalled memories with that person, and I would feel thankful to have each of them in my life. Occasionally, friends would even text me a picture of their card once they received it in the mail, sharing how touched they were to receive something handwritten among the postal pile of printer-generated labels.

This year, I am thinking more about the blank spaces and empty lines of text — and what they have to teach us. I consider the absence of an expected card or the edits made to the enclosed letters. The unsents and unsaids tell a story, too.

This year, I am thinking more about the blank spaces and empty lines of text — and what they have to teach us. I consider the absence of an expected card or the edits made to the enclosed letters. The unsents and unsaids tell a story, too. I ponder the people we’ve lost, from our address books and our hearts. I won’t be getting out my calligraphy pen but I have much to meditate upon, and a lot of blessings to count.

I asked my 12-year-old son if he felt sad that our family would no longer be sending a Christmas card. He said he didn’t think much about it, but then we remembered the year he asked me that if he should become a famous actor, would we still include him in the family photo shoot since he might be busy with auditions and filming on location? These are the memories that I could not have expected such a simple tradition would trigger. 

Indeed, for me, everything has changed. My address has changed; the addressee list has transformed. With any marital separation, the schism is felt across family ties and friendship loyalties. The photo subjects have changed in ways external and profoundly internal. The attendant message about our joys and sorrows is much more complicated. 

What has not changed, though, is my desire to let my people know that I love and think about them often — but especially as we close out another year of life. I also long to be connected to them, even if ZIP codes and time zones and even oceans separate us. I remain hopeful that they will continue to include me on their holiday card list, even if it is not a fair trade. It will do my heart good to receive their lovemail, to see their photos and messages, and to exclaim, “Look at you!”