Full Disclosure on the Family Christmas Card

As published in The Rye Record on December 16, 2012

Holiday propaganda.

The holiday cards are starting to roll in. It’s my very favorite part of the season, with all the voyeuristic joys of facebook but with photos that you can actually touch. Some people like to string theirs along the mantle or tape them to the refrigerator. I prefer to pile them on a lovely tray and sift through them at day’s end. They are magical to me, all those smiling faces and catchy holiday wishes. They are windows into the lives of the families who sent them. And my card lies among them, the big fat lie that I distribute annually through the mail.

My philosophy has always been that there’s no room in the holiday card for reality. Every year, I produce this costly document, to be preserved for the ages, as a snapshot in the year of my family. And it’s propaganda like you wouldn’t believe. The photo is always taken outside in some beautiful venue that, to the untrained eye, might be an exotic vacation spot or even a summer home. The one with the fall foliage could have been the day we all went apple picking. Two things you should know: we’re an extremely in-doorsy family, and we have never been apple picking. Ever. Look a little closer and you might recognize the shoot locations as Rye Town Park or my neighbor’s leaf pile.

The second step in my scam, after choosing the fake vacation spot, is costume design. My kids frolic in coordinating sweaters in holiday colors and clean pressed pants. I look back and wonder: who are these children? My kids don’t wear sweaters. Or clean pants. The receiver of this card marvels at the casual elegance of my children and the implied beauty of my life. This family must play polo in the Hamptons and certainly employs a woman to iron full time.

The photo that makes the cut always features my kids laughing in delight. You know, the way kids generally sit in a neat row and laugh at the sheer pleasure of being together and having their photo taken in uncomfortably clothing. They are often looking at each other in hilarity, as if the pure goodness and comedic genius of their brothers will sustain Christmas joy the whole year through. The truth is they’re laughing at me. Not with me, at me. I’ve just taken 50 photos and have screamed, “You sit there and look happy — or ELSE!” My Three Wise (cracking) Men are the only ones laughing.

This year a little reality snuck back into my card. I don’t know how it happened. Time and patience being as scarce as they are, I just picked a day when everyone’s hair was reasonably clean and no one had a black eye. I skipped the costume design in favor of the Under Armor Couture that they were already wearing and made them sit in front of our front door. Reality, you ask? How often do you happen upon three kids squeezed uncomfortably together in front of their front door? I know, it’s a stretch, but it actually was where we vacationed this year. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone until they looked sufficiently happy to be mocking me. Done.

Next year I’m considering giving up the game altogether and just snapping the three of them in the basement in their pajamas, Xbox controllers in hand, a trace of Cheetos dust coloring their lips. The truth is that the beauty of my family lives in those messy moments. But who really wants to see that?

Christmas is a shiny time, when we’re all a bit nicer to one another and come out of our own little worlds to consider the needs of others. We notice the beauty around us as a clean blanket of snow covers the world’s imperfections. It is the season where Tiffany’s tries to sell us the fantasy of the dashing man hiding the tiny blue box behind his back. And where for one moment, immortalized on 4×6 glossy, I pretend that my life is a Ralph Lauren ad.

We can get back to the business of reality in January.