Picture Perfect?

Picture Perfect?

The holiday card photo.

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A holiday card is never just a holiday card, especially for those of us who send them out with the hastily scrawled greeting, “Oh, dear God, is it February already?”

No, the holiday cards that will soon start dropping into all of our mailboxes are much more than simple, heartfelt exchanges of good cheer. They’re commentaries on our families, glimpses into our private lives, portals into our parenting styles. Not to put any pressure on the cards that you would’ve already bought and stamped and addressed, if only you were as organized as all of your neighbors and friends.

There are certain rules for holiday cards, things to be conveyed in a charming but unmistakably clear way. First off is that your kids, like those who inhabit Lake Wobegon, are all above average. The best way to showcase this without resorting to stealing the report card of their class genius and “photo shopping” it into your cards is to include a photo of your child holding aloft a chess trophy while his sibling modestly polishes his Student of the Year medal. If one of them happened to save a cat from a burning building, and the Associated Press captured the moment, you could include that snap-shot, too.

But most children are not aware of the holiday card rule and don’t cooperate in creating such photo ops.

(True story: The only time one of my siblings did something holiday card-worthy—my older brother graduated as valedictorian of his college class—my mother took dozens of photos of him standing next to the commencement speaker, author Alex Haley. My brother was much taller than Haley, and my mother cut off my brother’s head in every single photo. It looked like Alex Haley was standing next to a decapitated blue-gowned mannequin.) Failing documented triumphs, the next most important thing to do in a holiday card is to present your family as a well-groomed, harmonious bunch, not unlike those from a 1970s sitcom. Dressing in matching red turtlenecks and standing in front of a roaring fire while a pedigreed golden retriever lounges fetchingly at your feet? That’s the kind of thing your family does every single night. Just before your kids knock off another chapter or two of War and Peace and cheerfully floss.

Unfortunately, some children—namely, ahem, mine—seem determined to muck up the spirit of holiday cards. They choose the precise moment the camera flashes to pick their noses (“Is this the message we want to send? That we are a nose-picking family?!”). Or to punch their brother (“We are not a violent family! Seriously, we watch PBS a lot!”). Somehow, positioning my kids close together after grooming them to within an inch of their lives has the same result as putting feral cats into a pillow-case and hoping they snuggle up for a nap.

It’s usually just as we’re struggling to get a photo of our kids without any of their eyes crossed—by now we’ve abandoned all hope for simultaneous smiles—that the perfect card plunks into our mail-box. There’s always one family that dresses all in white—in white, for the love of everything holy—and takes their holiday photo somewhere exotic, somewhere we’ve never been and probably can’t pronounce. Their children’s fingers have never been intimately acquainted with their noses. The parents aren’t encasing the kids in a Vulcan death grip disguised as a hug to get them to face the camera. We secretly think un-holiday-like thoughts about this family and their matching Crest toothpaste smiles. Oh, and their cards inevitably feature tastefully elegant snowflake stamps.

This only renews my desire to get just one perfect picture for the holiday card. “Smile!” I hiss as my neck muscles strain. (“I’ve got an old lady neck in this photo! Delete it!”) Within minutes, the kids have created mohawks out of their gelled hair, and someone has spilled hot chocolate down the front of his shirt. (“The hot chocolate was a prop! You weren’t supposed to drink it!”)

Only once has a perfect photo op spontaneously arisen for us: Our three kids were all playing on the Eastern Shore while the setting sun painted the sky shades of pink and purple behind them. They weren’t wearing matching white shirts, but no one was mooning each other, so it was truly a victorious moment.

“The holiday card photo,” I whispered to my husband reverently.

We’d forgotten the camera.

Sarah Pekkanen’s debut novel, The Opposite of Me, is scheduled for release by Atria Books in March 2010.

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