Tag Archives: Christmas

On Sending (and Receiving) Holiday Cards and Letters

In the small Maryland town where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, sending and receiving postal holiday cards was an important part of holiday tradition. Dad and Mom participated by taking an annual posed picture of us kids and then making numerous copies in Dad’s basic home photo lab, stinking up our house for days. They’d either include a holiday greeting in the photo itself or add a brief caption to each copy.

Then they’d stuff envelopes, write out addresses, and affix stamps by hand to send to family, neighbors, friends, and business contacts. Our parents’ lives back then were too busy for lengthy missives. However, we sometimes received cards with long enclosed letters from friends and family far away. In our house, one entire hallway was devoted to an arrangement of the most colorful cards, dozens and dozens of them, usually patterned into the shape of a stylized tree. After I started a family of my own, I continued the holiday card tradition. 

By now, the postal holiday card and letter are fast becoming outmoded. Email can be a lot quicker and just as informative. All the same, I’m loathe to give up the older tradition. Stationery and gift shops still stock boxes of holiday cards. The U.S. Postal Service still collects and distributes mail. 

Those of us who write holiday letters in whatever medium tend to brag a bit. We also tend to play down any difficult parts of the year just ended. I find pleasure in sitting down to compose a physical page (never more, rarely less) of highlights of the year just ending. It’s heavy on the celebrations and on the achievements of the younger generations.

This year I got a late start sending out holiday cards and letters because of holiday travel, visiting family members on the other coast whose pictures I hoped to include. Now I’m back home. Relevant trip pictures have been transferred from cell phone to computer. I’ve started my annual ritual of card and letter composition and distribution. 

Tools for preparing and mailing holiday cards and letters have gotten somewhat more convenient since my parents’ days. My desktop printer will crank out appropriate adhesive mailing labels in sheets of thirty labels each. The printer can also produce multiple copies of letter text and interspersed images in either black and while or color. My word processing software, with some wrangling, will position pictures where I want them in the overall design. Most envelopes have peel off adhesive strips so they no longer require licking. Most stamps are also self-adhesive.   

The process of writing out each card and sticking labels on an appropriate envelope helps me bring to mind each recipient in turn. I remember how they are special to me. I briefly reweave some of the tapestry of our friendships. It’s disappointing when a card gets returned with “no forwarding address”—I’ve lost track of yet another tie to my past. Even worse are the cards returned with regretful notes letting me know the intended recipient has died. Each year, the prior year’s card mailing list gets winnowed by at least a few names. As best I can, I focus on the good of the lives that have ended. In this era when age segregation has increased, I try to include younger friends and to broaden the age range of new friends beyond just my own cohort. Otherwise, my holiday card list would gradually dwindle to nothingness. 

Our current house has little hall space. The number of postal cards we receive has diminished. The ones we still get will fit easily on our mantelpiece and along the top shelf of the smallest bookcase. I cherish them, fewer though they may be. In these shortest days of the year, they remind me both of the longer span of lives well lived and of the beauty of lives newly started. They reconnect us, something most of us can use after much pandemic-related isolation. 

Happy holidays to you and yours! A belated Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy (Solar) New Year! Happy Upcoming (Lunar) Year of the Rabbit! Whatever your media of choice, may you continue to send and receive holiday greetings!   

Hallelujah Choruses

Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah,” and, in particular, its “Hallelujah Chorus,” figures largely in our family’s lore. Over the years, I’ve participated in several Handel Choirs, mostly as an alto. A vocal score of Messiah’s choruses has somehow made it through our various moves and sits, slightly musty, on a shelf in my office. Once covid concerns wane sufficiently, I hope to participate in future Messiah singalongs. 

I’m not sure when I first heard this uplifting music. Because both my mother and her mother were practicing musicians, it was probably early in my life. The first time I remember being fully aware of the majesty of the piece was the Christmas season I was ten years old. 

Our immediate family’s trajectory had been fairly typical of post-World War II small town America. My father came home from the Navy in early 1946, after serving the final years of that war on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He and my mom, who’d married during one of his home leaves in 1944, set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom cottage built by Mom’s parents next door to their own house. Mom’s parents wanted to keep their youngest close by, especially after their only other daughter and their one grandchild so far had moved cross-country to Seattle. 

About a year later, I put in my appearance, followed in 1951 by a sister, then in 1953 by surprise twins—my youngest siblings, brothers to carry on the family name. Although Dad and some carpenter friends had added a second bedroom when my sister was born, it was tucked into an increasingly steep hillside. The slope precluded further expansion. Our small cottage was bursting at the seams. Dad and Mom paid a minimal monthly rent to my grandparents, more as a sop to Dad’s pride than anything approaching market rate. 

Partly buoyed by this informal subsidy, by 1957 Dad and Mom had scrimped and saved enough to purchase a five acre piece of property in a wealthier part of town. Dad by then had become a small-scale residential construction contractor. He had the contacts and skills to be able to build his and Mom’s dream house on the newly purchased land at minimal cost. They would start construction in March, 1958, once the ground thawed. 

For our final Christmas at the cottage, we’d shoehorned into one corner of the living room a small fir tree with presents underneath. While we went next door for breakfast at Granny and Pop-Pop’s, Santa (so the younger children believed) would leave an even bigger pile of gifts to be opened after our return. 

On prior Christmas mornings, we’d been awakened by Dad’s best stentorian bellow: “Rise and shine, morning’s a’wasting!” he’d yell.  

This year was different. From somewhere near the stairwell leading from the living room to our basement-level kitchen, there was music. Every bit as loud as Dad, it had a decidedly different pitch and rhythm: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”  As we stumbled out of our bunk beds and wiped the sleepy sand from our eyes, we wondered what was producing the music. It didn’t take us very long to locate the new walnut stereo cabinet with the record jacket to “The Messiah” placed carefully on top. Dad grinned at us, triumphant. 

My father and my maternal grandmother had a respectful but sometimes strained relationship. Granny could be fussy about protocol and social niceties. Early in Dad’s and Mom’s married lives, before the arrival of children, Dad had gone out of his way one Christmas season to impress Granny. At considerable expense, he’d purchased three tickets to an evening performance of all three parts of Handel’s Messiah in downtown Baltimore. He’d arranged transportation to and from the concert hall and had put on his one good suit to escort the ladies to this holiday tradition. 

As retold at subsequent holiday gatherings, Dad was so tired after a busy day of physical work that he nodded off early in part one.  When the “Hallelujah Chorus” began (at the end of part two), Dad startled awake. Most in the audience were getting up, a tradition started supposedly when, at the premier London performance in 1743, King George II  had stood for the “king of kings.” Other audience members had followed suit. Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus became customary whenever and wherever the oratorio was performed. Dad wrongly assumed it was the end of the performance. He went to get Granny’s and Mom’s coats, much to Granny’s chagrin. 

Perhaps the 1957 hallelujahs were his way of celebrating the prospect of having a little more distance from his fussy mother-in-law. Perhaps he was just overjoyed at the prospect of a big-enough house. 

After my dad’s multiple careers were over, he developed dementia. For much of his decline, he was lovingly tended by my mom, assisted by a fairly robust social safety net that included veterans’ benefits and a drop-in adult day care center. During his final few months, once the burden of his care threatened to debilitate my mother as well, he was confined to a nursing home. When my sister phoned to let me know that his body had finally died, she had the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing in the background. Somehow, it was a fitting testimony to Dad’s release from suffering.

The past couple of years have not been especially easy. Many of us have lost loved ones. The covid pandemic, in the U.S. and elsewhere, has brought into starker relief our disparities of wealth and of access to needed services. Rather than Handel, some of us may be more attuned to the darker lyrics of a recent “Hallelujah” version by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Cohen continued revising the lyrics almost up until his death in 2016. After several despondent verses, he nonetheless asserts:

I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…

I like to think that both “Hallelujahs” are relevant. We have suffered. We will suffer again. We have known joy. We will know joy again. Hallelujah!

Christmas by the Desert

Christmas by the Desert     –by Jinny Batterson

(Originally written in December, 2006, as we completed a first term as foreign English teachers at a smallish desert reclamation university in far western China.)

On bad days, the weakening sun blinks slowly over a bare landscape.
The students who bother to show up at all
drowse or exchange text messages on their cell phones.
Life seems brittle; our small attempts to make a difference, to enjoy ourselves
While doing it are dry as the dust that, folks tell us, will fill the air in April.

Uyghur, Han, Mongolian, American–
each of us wanders with little sense of direction
In this polyglot excuse for a university,
where misfits and refugees from “inland”
mingle but do not very much mix.
It is cold, and sometimes, even in December,
The wind blows.

Good days predominate.
An older student respectfully inquires
about differences among Western religions.
A few stalwart undergraduates continue to attend classes even
After their prescribed seven listening sessions are up.
An abundance of kitschy but sincere
holiday decorations festoon the shops,
Spreading a message of peace and goodwill that needs no language.
Wintering birds twitter.
Faraway friends send emails.

A little clean snow lingers in the shadows and on hedges from the dusting
That fell nearly a month ago.
Adults and children who do not know us say an English “hello,”
The children accompanying their greeting by giggles and running away.
Crews gather leaves and prune the dormant trees
to prepare for the next warm season.
The desert nearby covers us all with a sort of stillness,
Scouring away the unneeded cares of more “settled” life.

Our family and a not-quite-grandchild send pictures and greetings.
Life is resilient.