Holiday cards only tell half the story, but I still send them anyway

By Vanessa Garza

Last fall, when I realized our most recent family pictures were quarantine selfies of us dressed in pajamas sporting bedheads, I added take gorgeous family photo to my 2020 holiday to-do list. I followed that note with use photo to design stunning holiday card. Maintain the sacred tradition despite the chaos, I told myself. But first, buy hair dye for grays.

I booked a 20-minute photoshoot feeling hopeful, like the sentiment that might be displayed atop our holiday card, in foil gold letters, on pearlescent paper. The recycled holiday card paper that smells like a tree forest by simply looking at it and feels smooth as French silk pie.

On the morning of our session, I selected my nine-year-old daughter’s outfit first, a raspberry tunic with navy leggings, a glittery headband, and the suede peep-toe booties she referred to as her “high heels.” I dug up blue dress pants with an elastic waist for my six-year-old son and paired them with the light blue polo he called his “fancy clothes.” 

My husband grabbed a pair of dark jeans from his clean pile on the floor and one of his old work shirts – old because he hadn’t been to his office since March. I chose an off-the-shoulder navy blouse and ankle pants in a color that coordinated with my daughter’s tunic but didn’t match exactly, because we didn’t want to look like we had tried too hard.

On our drive to the photo session, I reminisced about our holiday cards over the last decade.

“Remember the year I took our photo from a tripod?” I asked my husband, sitting in the driver’s seat. He either didn’t hear me over the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the radio, or he ignored me. Spending every day together during a pandemic, coordinating home school and work calls strained our marriage, sometimes resulting in one-sided conversations.

In 2009, the year we married, my husband and I sat unblemished and unwrinkled in our first holiday card. The text across the top read Peace on Earth. We smiled from a jetty on the Atlantic during the golden hour. With his black nose and paws a little wet from a quick dip, our first puppy snuggled between us. 

“Say cheese!” I said to our dog. The salty air flowed through our hair, and the water glistened, but not more than my lip gloss with its shimmer finish.

In a cursive font, All I want for Christmas Is You bordered the image of our daughter on our 2011 holiday card, her birth year. Although it was a beautiful photo of our girl, she pooped on our couch as the camera clicked. But at least she looked peaceful in the picture, angelic.

“Are you kidding me?” my husband asked later as he scrubbed brown bits that night while I fed her. 

In our 2013 photo, I wore a cream sweater with a belt high on my waist, with enough tummy to discreetly (um, intentionally) announce another pregnancy. Our dog sat next to me, and our daughter, dressed in leopard leggings, black boots, and a denim jacket, flashed a smirk as my husband slipped her candy. The card didn’t mention that my mother-in-law had died earlier that year, except that the language read Live, Love, Laugh—her favorite expression, our tribute to her.

In 2016, our kids crouched around our dog in the photo, genuinely smiling ear-to-ear. Our dog also looked like he smiled as if our son had just told a joke or someone farted. The message on the card said, Joy. It wasn’t the appropriate indicator that I’d have multiple brain surgeries seven months later. I survived the health trauma though, so maybe the tagline fit after all.

As we posed for our 2020 pictures, maskless, wearing clothes that weren’t pajamas or workout gear, I realized the absurdity of the holiday card tradition showing families perfectly primped in tree forests, standing on historic bridges, or in front of rustic barns, contrary to their messy lives. But there we stood, guilty of creating a fairy-tale holiday card in the middle of a crisis.

As we smiled and posed, while simultaneously looking natural, I remembered the reality of our prior holiday photos sessions: cold kids, scowling faces, hats they’d never wear in real life, puffy vests, and itchy pullovers. My husband and I looked heavier and tired some years. But I hid behind sweaters and boots; the bags under my eyes coated with makeup; my cheeks dabbed with extra blush for a sun-kissed look. We only needed one good photo to create a magical card. And every year, we did.

A few weeks later, I received the images from our 2020 session. The photos, taken by a photographer across a field using a long lens, showed the sun reflecting the blond tones in my daughter’s hair; her natural highlights gleam. My son’s smile boasts his three grown-up teeth, and his blue eyes match his fancy clothes. My ten-year wedding anniversary ring sparkles just enough to be seen but not enough to look pretentious. The wedding anniversary ring I got because my original band was stolen.

I picked my favorite picture. My hand rests on our son’s shoulder. My husband’s hand rests on our daughter’s shoulder. Autumn leaves in red, yellow, and orange hues surround us. One can almost hear the crunch of the leaves by looking at the photo and breathe in the crisp fall air of that day. None of the pictures illustrate our world in disarray. We didn’t know it’d be months before we’d see many of the recipients of our cards. Most of them, we still haven’t seen.

When I scrolled through the holiday card websites, I couldn’t find one with an appropriate sentiment. I looked for a card that said: Don’t let this card fool you. We haven’t looked like this since March, but figured we’d take off our pizza sauce-stained pajamas, our masks that smell like hot breath, and smile. Like cards in years past, we went out of our way to look coiffed. What you’re not seeing is us sneaking candy for this enchanting photo. Or the crinkled masks in our pockets.

So, this year’s photo card will be different, natural. Maybe I’ll wear my hair damp and frizzy rather than straighten it. I’ll go with darker highlights compared to caramel tones. And I’ll wear jeans with a frayed hem. It’ll be so honest.

But we’ll still smile despite whatever pandemonium happens around us, because we don’t know what else to do in this annual tradition. Maybe we’ll sign our card a little more honestly: With love, From Us, the unscathed holiday card version of us.

Or maybe some things will never change and we’ll look radiant under the sunlight.

Vanessa Garza is a former corporate consultant turn writer after surviving a rare neurovascular disease called brain AVM. She lives in Boston with her husband, two kids and two dogs and is preparing for the holidays scrolling through countless websites to design an appropriate holiday card. 

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