Once it was sweet to send Christmas cards. My husband and I were newlyweds when we sent our first cards in 2003. Then we were the parents of a new baby. Then the people behind the camera, snapping photos of our three adorable kids.
This year, I’m not even sending a Christmas card. I don’t know what I would say.
This year, we lived paycheck to paycheck, all too aware that on some recent occasions, we had to skip meals so that our children could eat.
This year, my husband worked longer hours with very little sleep. This year, like the last year and many years before that, he didn’t get a raise.
This year, I scraped together work — some Web design, some creative writing — while battling a slew of illnesses and health conditions that I haven’t even shared with my friends or extended family yet.
I had my wedding ring cut from my swollen finger, because it was cutting off my circulation as a result of my rapid weight gain. When my boys collided in the living room, we had to pay hundreds of dollars to the dentist who repaired our son’s broken teeth.
During the election, we parted ways with friends who parked their biblical faith at the altar of pragmatism.
How could I write any of that on a Christmas card?
Nobody does. If our cards were any indication of how our lives really are, we would all be joyful, happy, sweater-and-flannel-wearing elves with chilly noses and ruddy cheeks before the backdrop of barren trees and fallen leaves.
Christmas cards only tell people how we want our recipients to perceive our entire year. We put our most shining moments on the stage, moments that like vapor appear for a little time and then vanish.
Those Christmas cards can be deceiving. Someone once said that the reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. Opening all those cards to see our friends’ smiling, posed photos during the holiday season, we can fall prey to comparison, discontentment and covetousness.
Can we have an honest moment here? Can I be transparent, and greet you with our very best wishes for the new year, despite how we’re really feeling? Here’s what I’d write, on the Christmas card I will never send.
Dear friends and family,
We didn’t send you a card in 2015 because that was our worst year: a car accident, a few instances of missed meals in order to ration what we did have in the fridge for our children, a chronically asthmatic child and a lot of rejections for freelance work.
When we compare 2016 to last year, it is night and day. We were in dark times last year, but this year feels like an upswing.
We still live frugally, measuring every purchase. We still struggle with our work and our health. But this year lent itself to adventure for me in a way I couldn’t have foreseen.
I went camping for the first time for a two-day getaway, and did I have the time of my life! I returned home with a nostalgia, a sweet longing for preparing meals over an outdoor stove, washing dishes from a spigot two feet off the ground, sleeping on a cozy air mattress among my children. I even missed the piercing call of the peafowl native to the campsite. As I unpacked our dishes and dirty laundry, I realized that our time camping had been suddenly relegated to a delightful memory.
That was enough to remind me that everything would be all right — that if our lifestyle ever became severely minimalist, we would all still be content, and we would have fun to boot. Whenever grace presents itself, it is as cold water to a thirsty soul. And more grace abounds when I see my arthritic mother muster all her energy to find some time to invite us for lunch or watch the children while I run to an appointment. Grace abounds when our neighbors give our children a set of toothbrushes and toothpaste that will last them for several months.
My daughter draws the face of her Papi with chin stubble on the whiteboard. My adolescent son manages to break his teeth at rough play. My middle son continues to negotiate between playing with action figures or braving basketball on his own without his brother leading the way. Together, the three of them are the creative force behind spontaneous plans, comedy and poetics around the dinner table.
I managed to get published more times this year than ever: stories, essays, blog contributions, op-eds. We are going to have victory over our failures, and we’re going to return to the fold of our church family more intentionally.
The best part of this trying year is that we’re relying more profoundly on our faith. Our family has been more blessed than people may presume. Many times we’ve had to live by faith alone when friends come and go, when the last bill leaves our wallets, when the food is low and the doubts are high. It was our faith that gave us assurance about those uncertainties in life that one moment appear insurmountable — and then victory comes in the morning, and by nightfall we can’t remember what we were fretting all about.
In the midst of our biggest fears, we know we are not forsaken. We take one look at our children and see their happy faces, their sweet spirits and their gratitude. And that is enough to say, we are doing all right.
I will never send that Christmas card. But if I ever again mail out glossy photos of my picture-perfect kids in wintertime outfits, I hope my friends can read between the lines. I hope they read the message of my years of unsent Christmas cards — the message of our faith, our resilience and our love.