The family Christmas photo. It’s inevitable. Each year, my parents gather the four of us around to take a picture for Christmas cards. It seems simple enough; everyone sits for five minutes while Dad snaps a couple of pictures and then everyone goes on their merry way. For people who send Christmas cards, the point of the picture is, on the surface, to send greetings and holiday wishes to old friends and family with a picture of happy snappy kids. It also might be shameless bragging—“Merry Christmas! By the way, look at how gorgeous my children are! And yes, that mansion behind us is our summer cottage on Nantucket!” I, for one, always laugh at the people who send the card with not only a picture, but an attached novel of a letter detailing the goings-on of the family since the last Christmas: “Joe Jr. scored 27 home runs for his little league team this spring! Sarah won first place at the biggest horse show in the state! And little Billy, we have been told, has and I.Q. of 160! As for Joe Sr. and me, we have been jet-setting around the world, volunteering in India and Cambodia! What an adventure!” Oh boy. Cards that also never fail to make me chuckle are the ones of the token tourist family: Mom and Dad with their fanny packs and the 1-3 children they might have, sunburned and standing in front of the Grand Canyon wearing matching Grand Canyon souvenir t-shirts. Don’t deny it, you know you’ve seen those cards before. But the hands-down best Christmas cards to laugh at are the ones where all the kids are hastily lined up in front of the decorated tree or fireplace lined with stockings, one or more of them might have been crying (their eyes and faces are a bit blotchy), maybe they put a Santa hat on the dog, and you just know it was an all-out battle trying to get this picture. Sometimes this card doesn’t even arrive until after Christmas—it is often postmarked on or after December 23.
My family, for the most part, is of the latter type. My parents insist upon taking a Christmas picture of the four of us every year, no matter what the emotional cost. Yes, picture time at my family residence usually ends up with at least one kid (usually the youngest, HJT, who isn’t even that young anymore) crying, one or both parents and at least two older siblings pretty ticked off. It starts off with a simple, yet condescending nonetheless, request: “JST, do you have to wear that Patriots jersey? Can’t you put on something nice?” Then its: “SJT, sit up straight.” Followed by “Harrison, would you just make a normal face?” and then, “JST, will you smile please? I paid 5,000 for those teeth.” This doesn’t only come from the parents, but the whole peanut gallery, including JST’s repeated requests for HJT to make him laugh, because if he’s not laughing he feels stupid smiling, and BMT constantly shooing the dog away, because it would be unfair to have the dog in the Christmas picture and not the cat, and all of us telling Dad to just hurry up and take the picture already. Sometimes one of the brothers is in a silly mood and won’t stop making farting noises or hitting the other until it gets so annoying that he is yelled at, after which the offending brother sulks for the remainder of the photo shoot. And always, without fail, there is the quintessential statement from mom: “look happy, dammit! It’s Christmastime!” When picture-taking is all over and we’re all sufficiently at each other’s throats, then comes the critiquing period, in which we all gather around the computer to choose which picture will be sent to 150 of my parents’ closest friends and relatives. Each picture is met with a chorus of “HJT is making a stupid face,” “I look fat,” “My eyes are closed,” “JST isn’t smiling,” and the like. Mom usually responds with, “Oh, I like that one!” while Dad silently clicks through the pictures wondering, no doubt, why he subjects himself to this each year.
In the end, however shameless and perhaps even pointless Christmas pictures might be, they’re still a tradition that my family seems unwilling to break. A year without a Christmas card complete with a picture is like a year without Santa Claus, we don’t know why we keep spinning the fable, but we do. Fat, happy Santa coming down the chimney; smiling, effervescent kids not pinching each other behind their backs; it’s all part of the façade. Next year my parents will vow to take the picture earlier, in the summertime, on the beach, or something. Secretly, I’ll want to send a picture of the four kids around a keg. Merry Christmas, love us.