Sunday, November 30, 2008

Crafting a Christmas Card

People don’t usually get to explain why they send the Christmas card that they do. Truth be told, they usually don’t want to. Enough that they found a card, got the envelopes addressed and stamped, and got them to a post office in time for a Christmas Eve delivery at the latest.

On November 29, the day before the First Sunday of Advent, I met the deadline that I had set for myself two months ago. Contact information that needed to get to the people to whom I usually write Christmas cards is on its way to them.

In the best of worlds, the exchange of Christmas cards takes on some of the spirit of an exchange of gifts. The choice of card is no haphazard thing because the potential recipients are no haphazard addressees. I always have had the hope that people opening the envelope that I addressed to them will find a card whose design and message cause them to pause, to evaluate, to conclude, “Ah, now there’s a John card par excellence. And with a John message!”

The yearly exchange is made. Two parties get once more to enjoy the expectation, the execution, the satisfaction of recognition and even gratitude for a worthy exchange.

Except... I know the speed with which I myself work my way through the stack of cards arriving any one day of December. Skipping summarily over envelope and address label, I briefly register the image on the front of the card, ignore the printed message inside, and head for any handwritten comment prefacing or following or facing their signature.

If the goal of the person sending the card had been to spend time with me via card stock and letterpress, I have thwarted their aim to delay me in the busy press of December duties at the end of each day.

They may know, however, that I am someone who will re-read their greeting after the evening meal, read it again before placing it in a basket in the front room, and potentially read it a third and fourth time at a moment of Yuletide reverie with eggnog in hand and sugar cookies on a plate beside me. Their efforts then will pay off – I will even wonder why this card, why this wording in their message, why this Christmas meriting just this greeting and no other. Why a photo card? Why a religious card? Why a funny card – again?

This analysis may give the lie to the time and planning that preceded my own trip to the post office on Saturday, plastic bag in hand with stamped envelopes safe from any weather that might have smeared an address or loosened the postage stamp with its Botticelli Madonna.

These cards that were two full months in the making were intended to get to recipients in a few days and make them pause – despite that fatigue at the end of a December day, despite that eagerness to finish with the holiday mail and get to cocktails and online shopping. If only because of its early arrival, my card wanted to get people to think a little longer about me than usual, about the things important in my life these days.

Will I succeed?

Will the chocolate brown envelope trump the white and red and green envelopes amid which it will lie? Will the texture and weight of the paper out of which the envelope is made recall the importance of formal announcements rather than the seasonal frolic of snowballs and holly?

A chocolate brown envelope begs for an address label lighter than chocolate brown. White labels are certainly available, but a special envelope is no longer special when the label reduces it to the status of one more piece of bulk mail. In an online search I found labels in the rough texture of kraft paper, a tan that shows up fine against the chocolate brown.

So... will the oversized kraft paper shipping label stand out in the way it was intended? Will a recipient briefly enjoy the exalted font size for his or her name in bold above the centered address? Will the smaller return address label on the flap of the envelope appear clearly linked in design to the label on the front?

Will the photo card inside the envelope surprise by not showing a face shot of me or anyone I know? Will the image of Willoughby Elliott's oil painting of two trees in a late summer landscape get a chance to make an impression when the card is placed on a mantle lined with red candles and brass stocking holders?

christmas 2008
in the open
in the light

Will the three lines in the tan message panel to the right of the image of trees seem unnecessarily cryptic or poetic or self-congratulatory when no sender’s name appears printed beneath them?

Even heavy with
art and
a tree
of its summers
in the open -
of the light
toward which it faithfully aimed
its every newest growth.

Will the poem on the enclosed cream-colored card get a careful enough reading? Will it appear to justify the earlier three lines as a message about Christmas and the way the radical hope at the center of that feast can enlighten and change real lives?

Will it make sense that I had something to say that may have needed two full months to become clear to me?

Will the multi-layered gift that the card attempts to be find a moment with each recipient and call forth from each of them a prayer for the power and hope of this feast in their own lives?

Two Warm Trees by Willoughby Elliott from Harrison Gallery


Vic Mansfield said...

as inarticulate, thoughtless, and sloppy as I am, I must say I love a man who loves good paper, poetry, thoughtful - careful planning, and beautiful cards.

If only my wishes would become action. Beautiful.

Ur-spo said...

My parents still make a big ordeal of Christmas Cards, keeping track of who sent what and who reciprocated and what sort of card to do this year etc.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it's an unqualified success. As you know, I have a strong preference for non-traditional cards to express the sentiments of the holiday season.

Yours is superb, and you're the only guy I know who could pull it off.

John said...

I suspect the key to any aspect of observing Christmas is delight. Delight takes what can seem an ordeal to some and turns it into something life-giving both for those who get to create it and for those who get to savor and enjoy it.

Meditation of a kind is inherent in much traditional Christmas observance. Choosing what part of that tradition gets our attention is akin to choosing what our individual garden will look like. Who really tries to make one garden do everything?

Anonymous said...

As I read your comments about your Christmas card, I remembered the times in the past that I have searched for the right card or crafted a card. You have captured so beautifully the thought process I experience when I receive cards. Thank you for your eloquent reverie.
I would have given your card top of the stack, front of the basket prominence.

John said...

Thank you, William, for spending time on the blog and finding yourself prompted to leave a comment -- and such an appreciative comment. I am beholden.

I am interested in the cards you used to craft. Any themes or designs in particular?