Photo Christmas Card: When You Know It’s Time to Give Up The Tradition

Way back when my oldest daughter was a year old, we started a tradition of taking a Christmas card photo. Every year on a Sunday around Thanksgiving, my husband and I would stage our own photo shoot, attempting to get the best possible picture of our three daughters and the dog.

We’d pose them holding sleigh bells against an evergreen backdrop, or pile them into a little red wagon with the dog standing in front of it wearing reindeer antlers. When they were too young to have their own fashion sense, I dressed them in matching outfits.

A Christmas photo shoot a few years ago. (via Joanne McHugh)

My daughters grew less enthusiastic about the Christmas photo as they grew older

As the years went on, the girls became less enthusiastic about playing along. The year my oldest turned 20, I had to pile on more motherly guilt than usual to make the photo happen. But I always got my picture.

The following year, the prospect of getting the girls to oblige didn’t seem any more promising. My oldest daughter was close to a full rebellion and ready to stoke the resistance among the other two. For weeks I pondered whether I should insist that taking that photo was my motherly prerogative.

After all, composing a photo that we could tuck into our cards was my chance to show how much having a family meant to me. The rest of the year, my take on family life tends to be more Shoebox than Hallmark because when the normal circumstances of life are about to get the best of me, finding the funny is a way to cut something annoying down to its proper size.

But that Christmas card photo was one of the few times each year that I went more Hallmark, shining a spotlight on what brought my life its true brilliance. Taking that photo was my way of sharing: These are my children with whom I am well pleased.

I thought of saying farewell to our Christmas card tradition

I was still vexed about the standoff when I went to an Advent by Candlelight gathering. The discussion at my table turned to evolving Christmas traditions. I was seated with two ladies who had recently lost their husbands and were facing a season chockfull of bittersweet memories. Whether they liked it or not, they’d have to replace a lot of traditions that they had no hope of being able to repeat that year. This made me feel a little bit like a loser. If the widows could cope with the loss of their traditions, couldn’t I figure out how to bid farewell to our Christmas card photo? 

After all, the Christmas card photo couldn’t go on forever. What was my end game? Would we graduate out of the tradition once people were out of college? Would we stop once somebody got married because our family circle had been altered? 

As I willed myself to accept that now was as good a time as any to be done with the photo, I considered whether there was anything that would make my surrender more bearable. I couldn’t have a photo worthy of a Hallmark card, but maybe one suitable for a Shoebox card might help.

So on a day when none of the girls were home, I made good on a threat I had made the previous year when we were wrestling over their cooperation. My husband helped set up the same red sleigh the girls had posed in the year before. And then I crawled into the sleigh with an understudy—Henry, the family dog. 

When I looked at the shots in which Henry and I were looking straight at the camera, I could see in my eyes some of the sadness I felt about not having my children in the photo. But the picture my husband snapped when the dog and I were goofing around at the end seemed to strike a happier tone. We had a winner.

Mom and dog in sleigh
This photo seemed to strike a happy note.

I explained why our daughters weren’t in the family picture

I realized that I had better provide some explanation along with the photo so that our family and friends didn’t think my photo signified a family schism, so I penned a note:

Dear Friends and Family,

Usually every year you get a photo of our three beautiful daughters. This year you get me and the dog. As the girls got older, they got more resistant to posing for our Christmas card photo. Last year, I employed motherly guilt to compel their cooperation. This year I decided to let it go. After all, sooner or later every tradition has to evolve. I thought that this one would last at least until somebody got married, but my projections were wrong. At least the dog was still in—I guess he recognizes who fills his food bowl.

Going forward, I’ll miss the challenge of staging a decent family photo on a late fall afternoon. In the beginning, it was hard to get a picture with everyone looking at the camera. Recently, the tough part has been getting all three girls to agree on the winning print. 

Why did we struggle every year to corral three kids and a dog? I guess the photo was our way of sharing with you the most significant work we did all year. And since we don’t see each other often enough, it was a way of marking time by showing how much the girls had grown over the course of a year. Now they’ve reached ages where most of the growth happens on the inside. Hopefully our paths will cross soon and you’ll get to experience these almost-fully-grown women for yourself.

So we are officially signing off with this holiday tradition. Here’s hoping that you—and we—come up with equally satisfying ways to stay connected, as well as some new Christmas traditions. We look forward to seeing your Christmas card photos for as long as you’re able to coerce your offspring. Before we know it, these people will be wrangling their own babies for Christmas card photos. Merry Christmas!

I hoped our Christmas card would make people smile

When I sent out our cards, I felt satisfied with the closing ceremony I’d created for our tradition. My silly picture had taken some of the sting out of this being the end, and I knew that it would give people a good laugh. I felt like I’d marked two decades of meaningful work raising three young women who hadn’t yet turned into hoochie mamas. It was kind of like throwing myself a little virtual retirement party after my swan song. 

My younger two daughters didn’t love the letter because they felt like the note ought to finger their sister as the culprit behind the end of the tradition. But as I pointed out, she was just doing what oldest children tend to do—reaching the next developmental stage first. They all would have ended up feeling the same way about the Christmas card photo sooner or later. 

I was surprised how much the end of our tradition resonated

The biggest surprise was how much my mailing struck a chord with people at the same stage of the parenting game. Two friends told me that it made them feel less guilty about not sending out their own Christmas card photos that year. Another friend said she had wondered about how much longer she was going to be able to get her two college-aged sons to comply with her photo request.

One friend waited until she saw me in person to tell me how much she appreciated my photo. She wanted to understand more about what motivated me to handle the whole thing as I did because she also struggles with figuring out how to let go.

Though I am now at peace with the end of our family’s Christmas card photo tradition, there’s no getting around the fact that my planned, yet still unwelcome, obsolescence as a parent will still take some getting used to.

Anyone up for forming a Parents Facing Redundancy support group in the new year?

More to Read:

Kids, I Promise I Won’t Be a Pain About the Holidays

About Joanne McHugh

With daughters ages 18, 20, and 23, Joanne McHugh has reached the Maytag-repairman stage of parenting when she only needs to be on call for those rare instances when her super-reliable children break down. Her mission now is sharing everything she thinks young women should know about building a life. Her forthcoming book, Things Your Mother Should Have Told You, offers wit and wisdom about developing a career, navigating marriage, and becoming somebody’s mother.

Read more posts by Joanne

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