Epiphany is past.
The baptism of the Lord, too.
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, there can be no denying that the Christmas season is now officially over. This makes it fairly certain that I probably won’t get my Christmas cards out. No Christmas letter either. I won’t be able to update the world about my kids, or talk about the spectacular vacations we thought about taking this past year. Nor will I be able to share tiny photos of all of us standing in front of some sort of body of water.
I feel like a Christmas failure.
I think there might be others like me out there. It is reported that Christmas card usage is down about a billion cards per year from 25 years ago, and only a portion of that is attributable to my family. But people still seem to want to send cards.
Very popular now are the little photo cards from Snapfish and Shutterfly and other web outlets. Often they are a collage of vacation photos, usually so tiny that a magnifying glass would make a great accompanying present. These picture cards basically say, “Here is photographic proof we are still alive, but way too busy having fun to write anything meaningful.”
My admiration persists for people who write Christmas letters. These may be the only real written letters most of us are likely to send out in a year, yet they are proof that we are not a completely post-literate culture.
Less admirable is the fact that so many such letters are deadly serious, like annual status reports proving “we have indeed been a productive family.” I say this because I loved writing humorous Christmas letters, which I know are just a clever way to say “we have been a productive family, and we have a sense of humor, too.”
Whether any such letters or cards will continue to be sent much longer is a good question. I’m not sure my children have darkened the door of a post office. Where the stamp gets put may still be a mystery, like filling out all the blanks lines on a check. Even emails feel pretty antiquated to them.
But for the rest of us who remember the cards and notes and letters tumbling through the mail slot every Advent season in decades past, well, I think we still feel guilty we aren’t keeping it up.
This is just one more expectation we heap like burning coals on our heads this time of year. We want to give perfect gifts and set the perfect table. Most of all, we want to connect: with friends, with family, with colleagues old and new, but in the frenzy of shopping and parties and what my dad called the “forced gaiety” of the season, connecting is the one thing that we seem too busy for.
Taking the time to write a real letter, or even just to jot a note to someone we perhaps think about often but haven’t seen in ages, is a way to connect that is actually quite personal. It is an acknowledgement that we wish we had more time to be in touch. In this sense, the guilt isn’t just about failing to practice a dying Christmas custom. It is the guilt of not staying connected as much as we would like, as much as we need.
I’m not sure how we slow all this down. The pace of work and family life feels like it is endlessly accelerating. When I consider how to slow down the merry-go-round, I think of the penultimate scene in Hitchock’s “Strangers on a Train” when the whole carousel tears itself off its base in a final grinding act of violence. Now that would be something to include in a Christmas letter!
I was thinking about this recently when, quite atypically, I showed up for Mass early. Except for a few musicians practicing, the church was nearly empty. In any other such situation, I would have taken out my phone and been busy scrolling, but that seemed highly inappropriate in this setting. So I sat there. In silence. Staring at the crucifix. And he stared back.
It suddenly felt like an extravagant luxury: quiet, prayerful staring time.
Amid all of my to-do lists and plans, my 24/7 connectivity and my 24/7 expectations, it is the one luxury that often seems beyond my grasp. Maybe writing an occasional letter to a dear friend qualifies as “staring time” too. Maybe the carousel keeps whirling, but we can commit to sending out letters like messages in a bottle, connecting with those we love, admire, miss.
For now, I have given up any hope of getting Christmas cards out, but what’s the likelihood I can send Easter cards?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.