Above: Dottie (left, a very gangly adolescent), Emma (right; "you can't be serious about this hat.")
Yes I have a dirty little secret. (Don't we all? But it's not that I consume my body weight in chocolate every 10 to 12 days. That's no secret. Please don't sic Dr. Gillian McKeith on me, because if I am forced to look at all the little Dove pieces arrayed on a table, in front of an international television audience, I just might get confrontational.)
I love holiday letters. I'm a pantheist, or maybe a progressive heathen, no, definitely a pantheist. I don't really have a holiday to celebrate so I celebrate every day. But as the end of the year draws close and the postal box clogs with catalogs and missives from friends my happiness increases greatly. I just find those rambling wrap-up-the-year-epistles that accompany the holiday cards engrossing. I know it is fashionable to be snippy and snide about such impersonal, scatter-shot notes right now—but did I mention I love them?
Everything about them thrills me. I don't even care if there is no personal note or even an original signature. The entire piece can be photocopied for all I care. I love the obnoxious colored paper people are forced to select when using copier stores that have limited paper selections or the canned pre-printed and over designed papers for which some people pay a lot. I love the typos, the grammatical gaffs, the lack of subject-verb agreement. I love the way I once read five paragraphs before I realized a former boss was telling a story about her cat, not a grandchild.
I'm like a greedy she-dragon, drawing her golden treasure up under her belly like a pillow. I gather the holiday mail from the box and carefully stack holiday cards, easily recognizable either from the array of printed labels or the hand calligraphy (some people boomerang from one to the other each year), in one pile, catalogs in another; because after all holiday catalogs do deserve their own moments of savoring. I'll never forget the pleasant but pleading conversation I had with the Harry and David Sales Operator, who had clearly been standing by for someone just like me:
Sales Operator (SO): Oh, it's on page 61.
R: No, I want just plain Moose Munch and that's a three pack of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and plain. I just want plain.
SO: The chocolate is to die for.
R: I don't like chocolate on popcorn.
SO: Did you know that dark chocolate is actually good for you?
R: Yes, I read that but I prefer milk chocolate; and actually I don't want any chocolate on my Moose Munch. I just want your lovely, buttery crunch. The best in the world, just that. Can't I get it just plain?
SO: Macadamia nuts come in the milk chocolate packs. Don't you just love Macadamia nuts?
R: Nope, I don't like nuts at all. In fact I pick out the cashews and almonds from the plain Moose Munch. I just really want the buttery, crunchy, popcorn. Can't I get plain Moose Munch without the chocolate?
SO: Why would you want to do that?
R: Because, as I said, I don't like chocolate on my popcorn.
SO: I'm so sorry, I don't have it available on its own, only in the three-pack with the chocolate versions.
R: Will you please tell someone in charge that they miss sales by not selling it on its own?
SO: Yes, I'll pass that on. Can I put you on our catalog mailing list?
R: Will the new catalog contain plain Moose Munch?
SO: No, just the three-flavor variety pack.
R: But I don't want that. Just please tell someone for future reference. I don't want to buy a three pack when I am going to throw away two-thirds of the product.
SO: So would you like to receive our catalog?
R [saddened and exasperated beyond resistance at this point]: What would be the point? No thanks, just please tell someone about the need to sell plain Moose Munch alone.
SO: OK and I'll see that you get a catalog. It has lots of great treats in it that you'll enjoy. It will cheer you up.
R: No thank you, your plain Moose Munch is the only product of yours I eat. But thank you. Good bye.
(I hope that call was recorded for training purposes.)
So there I am sorting the catalogs and the holiday mail. Sometimes I'll leaf through a catalog first just to look at things I'll never buy. I even put post-it notes next to fruit baskets and lox. It all seems so wonderful. (I truly am like Opus.) After a warm up I'll start reading the holiday mail—far more delicious.
I love reading what everyone is doing, or has done. I love knowing that a woman I sat next to at a publishing house light years ago has a son graduating from college or a lawyer friend has released a new country music CD. I savor the colorful and plain ways people recount their happenings. I smile over every baby snapshot or studio makeover photo like a doting aunt. These are stories I have followed all my life. Like a good English major I want to know how things pan out. I was never a soap opera fan—I always had holiday notes.
When I'm home at my parents I will go through their holiday mail and read it. Often it says "Mr. and Mrs. Stendahl and Family" so it's not as if I'm breaking any laws, or if it is even unethical. For me each of these letters is a bit of a connection and a completion which inevitably leads to the cliffhanger of what will happen next year.
My love of holiday letters led to my own holiday mail generation. First Dick and I simply sent out odd photo postcards: me in line to see Santa; take offs on Norman Rockwell paintings (including the time we borrowed a large white dog, not having any of our own at the time and enacted a tree harvesting scene with a purchased tree and hatchet—passersby kept shouting in disgust at us throughout the photography, thinking we had cut a tree down in the park).
When we did have the girls (our two Alaskan Malamute bitches Emma and Dottie) they came center stage with images of dog-shredded packages (they would never behave that way) and jingle-bell decorated hats for elf-auditions. (See above; clicker training paid off.) We sent out quizzes and contests and ultimately our own holiday newsletters. It seemed the natural way to connect to all those people I had moved away from in a life of travel.
When Dottie died my interest in making holiday cards waned. Instead of a December card, a New Year's Card became a Ground Hog Day card. I never miss deadlines; the shame was palpable.
Once, while clearing a place to sit in Dick's study so I could play solitaire on his computer, I found a large wad of holiday cards from 3 years previous. More piles emerged. It was clear that writing a note and sending his share of the cards wasn't happening. Maybe Dick didn't feel the urgency, since he hadn't ever moved away from anyone. Maybe it was just a task he didn't like? Yet every year he was up for the idea of sending out cards.
We sent out a card announcing I was taking control of the entire list, but even then, without Dot my heart wasn't in it. I even tried to rally with a Gocco-printed identification chart of animal tracks which showed Santa in danger of being eaten. But more and more as holiday time came around I'd start a card illustration (like Cootie [oldstyle bug, not the new cute variant] eating Santa's cookies), but I wouldn't finish it.
Right: The "Print Gocco" printed card mentioned in the previous paragraph. Look at the bottom of the card, and the animals for clues on what is happening.
Looking back now I think it was more than the hassle of taking it all to the printer and mailing it all out while still keeping on schedule with everything else in life. I had lost track of the narrative in my own story. I'm still putting it together. Holidays really are for people who have children, or better yet dogs. In such a household there is no shortage of exploits to recount. And as a life-long letter writer holidays also represent the one time non-letter writers reciprocate. What could be better?
I won't do a holiday card or letter this year, maybe never again. Frankly I've been too busy writing about paint and such on my blog. But I will open the mailbox each day this holiday season with anticipation—eager to read what everyone else has been doing. I hope your mail box is filled with holiday letters short, long, and even barely comprehensible. I suggest you display them on the mantel or leave them out in a basket. That makes it easier for me to read them if I should happen to stop by.