holiday hostage

warning: the following message contains some holiday cynicism, and is probably way too long for the subject. Christmas devotees and people with more pressing last-minute shopping are duly advised.

it all started innocently enough in September, with a day to honor the cause of labor unions in America. Labor Day, the first post-summer holiday, was a welcome notion after months of toil without rest, although i was working too hard to actually observe it…nonetheless, it was the thought that counted. so i say to myself, first week of september…christmas madness is months away, a veritable eternity.

flash forward to November, and a day of Thanksgiving. this year was harder than most to find those things for which to give thanks, but we managed (wine helped). in the tryptophan haze that followed the usual turkey – mashed potato – broccoli – wine – bread – and – don’t – forget – the – (gallon of) cranberry – sauce extravaganza, we stoked up the fire and sat comfortable in the notion that we wouldn’t be caught dead shopping that weekend…still plenty of time to take care of all of those Christmas things.

and then suddenly it’s the week before Christmas and you haven’t bought your Mom anything (and we all know that Mom’s forgive these transgressions of ours, but some of us who shall remain nameless (me) still manage to feel like shit about it). the cards haven’t even been sent yet…my god, man, at least rouse yourself from that post-thanksgiving stupor and scribble some cards, you christmas-hating troglodyte!! how hard could it be after all? i don’t have that many friends; it will be a good way to connect with all those people who think i got kidnapped by aliens this year.

i bought the cards and was all ready to sit down and write, but then i took a small trip into the northwest. i took the cards with me, filled with the best of intentions, but somehow they just sat in my luggage, looking at me longingly every time i opened my bag. plenty of time to still write those cards…i’ll do it when i get back. and then i was back, and there was no avoiding it any more. it was at this moment that i really began to feel like each of us is held hostage by the holidays in our own special way. for me, christmas cards are one of the candy-cane bars in that prison of mirth and merriment that is the christmas-(you better be happy)-holiday season.

christmas cards come in several flavors. some people just sign their cards – no personal greeting, just generic best wishes, or perhaps love if you’re lucky. then there are those with children who send family photos (usually a variation on the generic theme, although without the thoroughly uncreative cards we often have to buy while pinching our noses). the bulk message is another popular trick; spend a little more time, write a note summarizing events of the year, print, insert, and then sign with perhaps a few words. finally, there is the holy grail of Christmas cards: the personal, hand-written message, crafted with care for everyone on our list; this is the ideal for those who eschew presents, who want to create something more meaningful, and who save enough time to pen messages that don’t sound like Christmas spam.

given that i’ve gotten progessively worse at keeping in touch, the personal message is usually the approach i take, since it’s the one time a year that i connect with the people who are or have been in my life. my desire to take this approach flies directly in the face of my laziness, and the fact that i usually wait until absolutely the last possible minute to get these messages out to people. this year, i chose a variation – create a small printed message that everyone gets (the spam), and then add a small note at the bottom (the personal touch, the icing on the spam, if you will). that way, i could get everything done in an evening, ready at dawn for delivery through sleet, snow, and rain to people across the globe.

and so the process begins. write the personal message – strike the chords you want to strike, hit the highlights, avoid overly sentimental schmaltz, and finish with best wishes couched in non-cliched terms (harder than it sounds; almost every word uttered this time of year is a time-worn cliche). ok…that wasn’t too bad. how many people do i need to write this year? hmmm…better get out the Handspring and scroll through the address list. you’ve bought 20 cards, so make it count…lets’ see…we’ve got relatives, friends, and family of friends. uh oh…there are at least 30 people on the list. scratch people from the list, or buy more cards tomorrow? buy more cards.
now that i’ve got the spam and the list, i can print and create that personal touch. contrary to manufacturer promises,
my printer is about as slow as tectonic plate movement, which meant that printing 15 color sheets took about an hour. so we’ll multitask…start printing, write on completed sheets while others print, repeat… and remember to think about buying another printer.

now on to the personal messages. i didn’t leave quite enough space at the bottom of my bulk insert for a long message (the subconscious at work). oh well…sentiments in heart, muji pen in hand, printer printing, i set myself to the task. at a paltry three minutes a message, for 30 cards, there’s another hour and a half. but it’s done. except i need to address the envelopes.

do i have everyone’s current addresses? will the excuse ring true if they get returned (‘i sent your card weeks ago…i must have an old address’)? it turns out that when i transferred my analog address book into the digital world, my analog brain left out a few people. so, i gather addresses from three places (Handspring, analog address book that i saved in case i made the mistake i knew i would, and email containing addresses that had changed but that i hadn’t updated in my Handspring). as i’m addressing cards, i run into the age-old dilemma – for friends that are married, did their wife take their name? if i’m not sure, will they be offended if i use the husband’s name? is it enough to write to the ‘Johnson Family’? should i include the cherished pet in the address?

addresses are done. now we’re in business…except i don’t have enough stamps. i will have to buy more tomorrow, along with the extra cards i have to buy because i couldn’t bear crossing people off my list. it’s time to sleep. (through all of this, the elves are laughing through the aforementioned candy-cane bars).

i overslept and missed the mailbox pickup in front of my building. it’s pouring rain, and i have to take my laundry to the cleaners. shit…ok. almost done. collect laundry, drive to post office and circle like a restless shark for 10 minutes looking for parking, mail batch one, buy more cards and stamps, go home to insert inserts, affix stamps, go back to post office and mail batch two (holy mother of god! a parking spot in front of the post office!!!).
total estimated time: 7 hours (for 30 cards, an average of fourteen minutes per card)

whoever said that christmas cards were an easy way to reach out to people was either (a) deluding themselves, or (b) not possessed of the same neuroses running amok in my mind like small, sinister wood elves. maybe it’s me that said it’s easy, but i only did it because i really do care about all of the people to whom i write my personal notes, complaints and cynicism aside. like a modern-day reindeer, i’ll hurdle any number of obstacles, elves, santas, and crazed holiday shoppers to complete those cards. it matters. and fourteen minutes is not a lot of time to give to the people who make your world a better place.

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