The Competitive Sport of the Family Christmas Card

Forgive the holiday-card impaired, for we know not what we do

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The first and only photo my parents used for a Christmas card.

The first card arrived Dec. 3 — double-sided, with multiple photos of two smiling children taken in all four seasons of the year and a tasteful yet cheery border. Panic set in later that afternoon. Where is my camera? Do I still have the battery charger? How will I wrangle my kids, and what kind of results will I be sending out by the dozens through the U.S. Postal Service this year?

The holiday season ushers in a particularly competitive parenting sport: the photo card. Wasn’t Facebook supposed to get rid of this annual nightmare? Instead, the proliferation of photo services like Snapfish and iPhoto means that there’s no bar of entry for amateurs like myself who have no business photographing or designing anything for public consumption, and way too many ways for us to mess it up. Those of you who do have the skills to pull this off every year, rest assured that your talents are noticed. I only ask that you suspend judgment on those of us who are holiday-card challenged, but who persist in sending one anyway.

(MORE: Scientists Create Smallest Christmas Card in the World)

In my case, there is a family history, specifically a photo of me and my two brothers that my parents sent out as a Christmas card in 1971. One of my brothers has his arm in sling but is nonetheless clasping a large, opened box of Mister Salty pretzels. I’m turning my cheek to the camera to better display the BandAid on my face. My oldest brother looks angelic, and maybe back then one out of three was considered a good return. Back then, in order to make a photo card, you first had drop off the film to get it developed, and then return to the shop with a negative in hand. After the Mister Salty card, my parents never attempted it again.

My Shutterfly account tells a different story, one of repeated Sisyphean attempts that fall short. There is the year my son’s nostrils are slightly flared (which was better than photos from the same session in which you can see so far up his nose that you can almost glimpse his sinus.) I know everyone says that taking pictures is a numbers game, that you just have to keep shooting and you’ll eventually get something good, but that never happens to me. I keep shooting and they get worse. This year, my daughter is a little bit blurry, but both kids are smiling so it’s a personal best. Standards are lower for holiday-card challenged families. The Obamas just released a photo that’s perfect, and they’re not even using it on their card.

I could, of course, not send a card at all, but then I’d slowly stop getting them from everyone except the accountant and the paper carrier, and I actually love seeing pictures of other people’s kids. Instead, in an effort to increase awareness of the holiday-card challenged and help others with similar impairment, I have decided to go public with my own personal limitations:

• There will always be only one photo on my card and I will resort to props — dogs, piles of leaves, Santa hats.

• There will be red eye, which is better than when I tried to use the “eliminate red eye” function on the dog in ’05 and wound up with a result that can only be described as “no eye.”

• The font will be chosen by the more recalcitrant child in the photo as an incentive for him to let me take the photo. It will probably be Script, because he’s learning cursive, or possibly even Blockhead, because it looks like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

• There will be no personal, hand-written inscription. I will make up for this by personally writing your name and address on the envelope, having never had the foresight to create a mailing list and make pre-printed labels.

• I have only just discovered matte. I apologize for all my previous years of glossiness.

• I will continue to use Shutterfly, even though the most attractive cards these days seem to be coming from Tiny Prints. I cannot master another system. Plus, the tyranny of choice.