A White (Lie) Christmas
Something lurks inside every holiday Hallmark
On the outside, Christmas cards are so innocent. What could be more cloyingly sweet than a depiction of a calm and serene snow-covered glen with a small, winding path leading to a cozy cottage decked with evergreen boughs for the holidays? But beyond the formidable façade of the card’s illustration, there is something dark and sinister, neatly folded and tucked into the Christmas card: the holiday newsletter.
For those of you struck by a strong case of Nativity naïveté, I regret to inform you of the existence of this newsletter, and I offer you my apologies. But, for your own good, you must know that because of it, many, and probably most, Christmas cards are rife with patent falsehoods, half-truths, and distortions.
As the practice currently stands in America, there are up to three parts to a proper Christmas card. First, there is the card itself, which is always purchased from Hallmark—no exceptions. Second, there is a heavily staged photograph of the entire family, most often in front of the fireplace with the family dog. Third, there is the dreaded holiday newsletter.
The newsletter is essentially a short summary of your family’s year, but it’s also a brazen work of fiction. It is meant to be a brief summary of the events of the year in the life of the family, but in reality, it is a long disquisition on how the family wanted the events of the year to unfurl. As such, it is brazen not only in its obvious and legion lies (no one tells the truth in a Christmas newsletter), but it is also in its hubris. For what is hubris if not assuming that your distant relatives and one-time friends care a wit about the fact that you’ve been promoted to assistant district sales manager.
The Christmas card and its wicked counterpart—the holiday newsletter—both have a long history. A product of the Victorian period, our current Christmas cards first came into vogue in 1840s England. From the very beginning, they often included a newsletter. The entire Victorian project of keeping up appearances and maintaining a veneer of respectability made it inevitable that this newsletter was a heavily amended summary of the events of the year, of course interspersed with all of the proper holiday pleasantries.
Americans entered into this pattern of yuletide dissimilitude largely through the effort of a Prussian-born engraver named Louis Prang. Often dubbed the "father of the American Christmas card," Prang started manufacturing cards for the American market in 1875. The practice of exchanging greeting cards with holiday newsletters during Christmas time quickly became popular, as it remains so to this day. While as early as the 1840s some Americans were already sending out cards, the custom grew greatly with Prang’s efforts.
Today, as during the Victorian period, the Christmas card itself is purchased at the store, but the newsletter is no longer handwritten. In modern America the holiday newsletter is printed on the family’s DeskJet and usually has a festive border around it. But don’t be fooled by this ornament, the letter’s content is a veritable popcorn chain of falsehoods, all strung together with conventional and informal prose.
Outright lying remains less common than massaging the truth, but it still happens. A letter might include lines like, "Bill has been promoted, and Johnny made National Honor Society," when a more truthful missive would have read, "Bill got arrested for drunk driving, and Johnny has converted the garage into a meth lab."
But the lying is usually less overt. A more typically card would read, "Deborah has gotten engaged, and Barry has gotten involved in community service." Unlike the case of outright lying, both of these statements are true, but here the tactful writer of this newsletter simply seems to have forgotten that Deborah was already six months pregnant before getting engaged and Barry was assigned his 40 hours by a district court judge.
Whether overt or not, however, these lies are often more believable if stated with high-flown rhetoric. And you must be aware that relative literary excellence in a greeting card often goes hand in hand with a particularly sordid family dynamic. Every so often some of you will come across a card written entirely in rhymed couplets, or structured around an elaborate acrostic phrase like "SEASONS GREETINGS." If you see an acrostic like this, know that it likely should have been something closer to "WE’VE FILED FOR DIVORCE."
Perhaps we can never get rid of the lying in Christmas cards. After all, it’s hard enough to get rid of Christmas cards already. As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, there is no clear time limit on how long you need to keep them, so people oftentimes will store them indefinitely, or at least for several months, on a mantle or refrigerator.
Although I am not eager to learn the dark secrets of my friends and family, I’d still like a bit more truthfulness in holiday newsletters. Lying may seem like a good option in some circumstances, but it destroys any usefulness that the newsletter might have for other people. Unable to determine what is true, we are left with a summary of fanciful wishes how the year should have gone. But since the lying will likely never end, perhaps we could simply stop sending holiday newsletters. My mantle space would certainly be a lot freer, and I could get my fiction from better sources.
Charles R. Drummond ’09 is a history concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.