To Christmas Card or Not to Christmas Card

Christmas is four days away. I have received three Christmas cards, and I have not sent any Christmas cards out, nor will I send any before Christmas. Or after Christmas. There's January, I tell myself. The New Year's card is an option. January is the new norm.

Since the holidays are full of ritual (can there be too much tradition?) in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, no one has time to get their Christmas card out before the Christmas holiday. Last year, the fancy card sites gave out bigger discounts in January. Not that it matters much, the 20 percent, on top of photo fees and printing fees and that particular card you want, you know, with something fancy, maybe a little foil, with three pictures instead of just two, that will cost you. If you want a message on the back, it will cost more. Pre-printed labels, extra. Your order may total hundreds of dollars, depending on how many families are on your list.

The fact that I may not send a card doesn't stop me from complaining about how no one is sending me any holiday cards. I grew up in a home that received a basketful of cards each holiday season, postcards, photo cards, letter cards, and mimeographed photo/letters. I remember coming home from college at Christmas to read these particular family updates, for hours. They were sincere reports. Some were dry, some were funnier than others, some took the art of family bragging to a new level, but it was all a special kind of news. Now, perhaps, it's the sort of news you get via Facebook, every day, all day, that you absorb and forget. Our dog died. Liam went to college. Libby got her dream job. We moved. People were married or retired. But back in the day, it was news I hadn't heard, or news from families I knew little about — longtime friends of my parents whom I hadn't grown up around, distant relatives I hadn't shared much time with. The Christmas cards were a novelty — actual news. It was also a snapshot, thoughtful, boring, or simple, of how other families lived and grew. I loved the holiday news.

Since we already have the news, now the card is image. Every year, a family — typically a mother — has to decide. Do we make an official holiday card? Are the Steilens Joyful, Merry, or Bright? It's fun to design. It's fun to wade through a year's photos. There are so many options. You can do it yourself, if you have a good printer and the right paper. But there's a lot of competition in the fancy photo card category. Many families have a photo shoot in order to maximize their chance for a pretty card. And if you need a photo shoot, you'd better book it before Thanksgiving. Probably by October, latest. If you went to a wedding this Summer and remembered to take a photo, count yourself lucky. Many mothers, if you're like me, have hundreds of awful photos of their children on their phones — looking super lovable but smeared in some food or dirt — and zero pictures of themselves or their spouse. I certainly do not have photos in which either daughter — ages 2-and-a-half and 5-and-a-half — is within a foot of the other and looking at the camera. So I can see why families choose a professional. At least everyone is dressed in clean clothes (or just alike, for some families). And if everyone looks terrible you are standing in an attractive arrangement/lovely backdrop and the clothes look awfully nice. And you can say, look, we tried. We had a wonderful year. The best thing about the photocard tradition: photos of other people's kids are always beautiful. I never get tired of the photos.

If I do card, I don't have a group photo. I can try to get one at Christmas, when there are more photographers around. I could attempt to do a shoot at home. When the girls were smaller and posable, at least the baby was, to some degree, I used to throw a sheet over the headboard, place both children in nice clothes on the bed and phone snap away. Usually one came out just right. You only need one. I haven't had the guts to try that in about a year. This week, both my kids have been sick; we are only a few days from the extremely long road trip that will get us home for the holidays. No one is feeling photogenic or enterprising. My other option is to pull a random set of photos from my phone — one for each month? — of kids doing their kid thing — paste it into a doc with captions, print and copy. If the crunch sets in, there's Walgreens — the photocards already shaped for a #10 envelope are easy, low-cost, and print in hours. Or I could source the card design to my 5-year-old. As I think about my options, the beautiful cards trickle in. Ah, Minted, love. Ah, Tiny Prints, love it. Oh, Artifact Uprising, interesting. But there's time. There's always January.