Turbulent Waters: Holiday Card Traditions, Change and Acceptance
Have you gotten out your holiday cards? Or perhaps decided to skip the tradition? While I frequently read posts from PITT, I never considered submitting one of my own until last week when, as the holidays loomed, I was suddenly seized with the urge to write and process why the task of creating a holiday card feels so dark and burdensome to me. And why I’ve been procrastinating for weeks on end.
Since our kids were small, creating a family holiday card has been one of my contributions to our holiday season. I would arrange to get some family photos taken in early November, incorporate the best photo in a couple of different designs, get the family's input on which card they liked best, write a summary of our highlights for the back of the card, and hit the order button. All these steps would happen before Thanksgiving so we could take advantage of special discount offers for early orders. Once the cards arrived, we’d all sit around a table to stuff cards and stamp envelopes. And then, smug with parental pride for my two good-looking, healthy, vibrant kids, I would send those cards out into the world.
As the years passed by and my kids started to voice stronger opinions, my task became a little trickier to navigate but still quite a fun exercise. That is, till last year when we entered an agonizing new era – the era of gender torment. Trying to put on a brave face, I kicked off the process with pre-Thanksgiving family photos. Alas, this time my efforts to stage manage fell flat. There was to be no business as usual, especially in front of the camera. The teenage girl who used love the camera, holding herself confidently and flashing her dazzling smile, now hunched her shoulders and slouched in oversize, crumpled men's clothes, her scruffy hair pulled down over rebellious eyes, her jaw thrust forward and mouth fixed in a defiant refusal to smile. Whatever pose I suggested that she and my son adopt for the photos, she managed to find a way to masculinize it. It wasn’t that I was hoping that my daughter would suddenly put on clothes that actually fit her, re-embrace the cute pixie cut she used to sport and declare her girlhood. I just wanted to see her face and the easy smile that used to light up the room. And I hoped that she would drop the aggressive masculine posing, even just for a few minutes. Needless to say, many shots were taken that day but I could not see my daughter in a single one.
We were nowhere near ready to communicate this news to our friends and family. Nowhere near feeling ready to send a card that would invite the question, “So what’s going on with Anabel?” As the early bird deadline approached, I picked a rather lugubrious design with no space for a photo, wrote the briefest of summaries, avoided all pronouns, and hit order. There was no family gathering around the dining table to stuff and stamp the cards, just a huge elephant in the room. Sending them out without a photo, I felt bitterly resentful of my daughter for spoiling our holiday tradition and making it so hard for me to send a genuine message of joy and hope to our family and friends. I also felt a deep sense of despair at my own inability to sustain the warm fuzziness that seems to surround and hold other families together through hard times. I imagined the disappointment of our parents, thousands of miles away and accustomed to cards featuring happy-faced grandkids that they could proudly display, on receiving our rather somber card. Meanwhile, holiday cards from friends and acquaintances started flooding into our home, all showing kids or families looking genuinely happy together. And while there is always some level of self-promotional fiction in these cards, just as there is on social media, I saw that these families at least liked one another enough to get it together and create a joyful holiday card. It felt as if the gulf between the vibrant family life I wanted and the hollow family life we are leading was on display for all to see.
And so to this holiday season, year two of gender torment. The elephant is still in the room. We are still not ready to break the news to our elderly parents who deeply cherish their one and only granddaughter. And if I’m honest, I still haven’t made peace with letting go of the picture of the family life we were leading as recently as 18 months ago. Those early bird deadlines for custom holiday cards are now long gone. Anticipating the impossibility of capturing feel-good images, I didn’t even bother arranging for photos. No one even noticed that I hadn’t brought up the annual holiday card project. Meanwhile, I allowed myself to procrastinate for weeks. Finally, last weekend inspiration struck. We asked the kids to send their best photos of the year, thinking that maybe we could assemble a collage from a mix of action shots and candid photos, each small enough to disguise the fact that our daughter is living as a boy. Instead of taking our request seriously, they sent a bunch of ridiculous photos, including some rather hideous ‘AI-enhanced’ photos. This playful act of teenage rebellion failed to amuse me (I have little sense of humor left at this point) but it did give me a fanciful idea. The next day, I played around with AI-enhancements myself to see if I could "detrans" my daughter's image for the purpose of a holiday card (sheer lunacy, I know.) Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out anything is possible with AI and I was able to make something deceptively jolly. I promptly deleted it, detesting its fakery. Instead my solution for this year will be a bunch of boxed cards featuring various holiday themes. Each one will be handwritten. Personalized. Old school. My husband and I will open a bottle of wine, play some music and settle in for the evening.
Meanwhile, the happy family cards have started rolling in. Next year, things need to be different, meaning that I need to face up to the fact that this is our life now. I must plan around that, let go of my expectations and stop allowing our holiday card to symbolize what I see as my failure as a parent. It’s not my fault and it’s also not my daughter’s fault. This is just a holiday card after all. It should not occupy much brain space. Right?!