Christmas music. Ancient carols, Vince Guaraldi’s Snoopy suite, and most of all White Christmas pushed the sentimental boom box buttons of my brain in the 2020 Christmas season. Otherwise, cancelled Thanksgiving already past, Christmas was the most solitary event of the Covid Pandemic year.
With every Christmas Card I Write. Instead of my usual lavish collage or family group photo for this year’s Christmas card, I selected a screenshot of the on-line book launch of Strawberry Roan, my new memoir. It was one the few photos I had from 2020. There had been no family photo shoot. This picture was the best I could do. It included myself, Ellen and Lyman, two of my three adult children, and several writing friends, all boxed in virtual space. I had 50 Christmas cards made by Shutterfly, which offered a bevy of options including adding my name and additional text. I typed a few lines with my scant news on the back. I wrote a personal word or two, a line at best, and sent them out.
The experience was nothing like the lyric from White Christmas, the Irving Berlin song penned in the 1930s.
That image of writing a Christmas card conjured Mother, seated at a mahogany desk in her bedroom, furnished with antiques and Japanese prints from the eighteenth century. Her room was completely incongruous to its location on a New Mexico ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and it was here that she was writing dozens of Christmas cards, some of them no doubt mentioning a white Christmas. The altitude was high at the ranch. Snow likely graced one out of three Christmases in the 1960s.
She took the task seriously. “I have to get to my cards,” she’d say as soon as catalogs began to fill the mailbox at the ranch gate on the gravel road to town. Soon the one she waited for arrived. Glossy, blue and gold the signature colors, the gift shop catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art contained pages of cards. She studied and selected her card for the year from those that were classic reproductions by the masters, the Madonna and child one year, the manger scene another. She ordered the beautifully printed greetings, just the cards and their matching white envelopes. The only convenience option in 1960 was to have your name printed.
“How impersonal,” Mother scoffed. “I can write our names as I want them, ‘Dick and Wally’ for some friends, ‘Elizabeth’ for others.”
She wrote much more than that. Each card had a note on the back spilling over to other white space, not an epistle but a cheerful rendering of her news, hopes and fears. Writing with a patented Shaeffer fountain pen that sucked ink from the bottle, she would rue a botched address, spoiled by a jerk of her hand, a spelling error, or a too-helpful cat. She would fret over timely mailing, but I doubt that a single card was ever late.
In the days close to Christmas, Daddy would drive to the ranch gate and gather the mail—no more catalogs by now, but the newspaper, and a magazine or two were there. He must have smiled at the treasure of the day’s delivery, the Christmas cards from Mother’s friends, crisp white envelopes addressed with Palmer script. They filled the mailbox, first one or two a day, then more, up to Christmas Eve. When he brought the mail into their lofty living room, Daddy would quickly sort it on the teak game table.
He’d carry the stack of cards to Mother, her eyes dancing behind her reading glasses, hands open to receive them in her easy chair by the fireplace. In that moment, she was the queen, he, the prime minister, of some tiny fairy tale kingdom.
She’d slit each envelope with a brass letter opener and check the return address to assure that no change was needed for next year’s card list. Daddy brought her a cup of Lipton’s and settled himself in his recliner.
She read the first of many, beginning with a comment on the card itself: Santa, or a Cardinal in the pines. Some cards were large and lavish with even more gold than the Metropolitan’s. She relished the handwritten notes that she saw as reciprocal to her own, reacting with an oh or a laugh.
Then she’d turn to Daddy and relate the news from this or that old friend--- the one from afar who also wrote Christmas cards.