Literature 12-13-2005

Letters from a Writer: Religious Enough

Christmas and pluralism: can they live in the same house? The nature of greeting card iconography becomes the test.

Jean Sramek

Like everyone else with all five working senses, I used to hate Christmas letters. What’s not to hate? Desperate, perky descriptions of the questionable accomplishments of overprivileged suburban children; rhyming poetry that makes you want to scoop out your own eyeballs with a spoon; creepy digital photographs of pets dressed up like reindeer; boasts about newly acquired consumer items and real estate, thinly disguised as things to be thankful for; and the exclamation points!!! Oh, the exclamation points!!!

Then I started writing my own, and discovered what a delightful, subversive instrument of Satan (it’s an anagram) they could be.

It all started because of a domestic argument over the Christmas cards we (and by that I mean “I”) had purchased, signed, stamped and addressed and were about to send out to relatives and friends. They had a tree on them or something like that, and they said “Merry Christmas.” My spouse (who is a Christian) said to me (who is not), that, um, maybe these weren’t, you know, appropriate cards to send out to some of his relatives. Reason: they’re “not religious enough.” I knew what he meant, but I was compelled to point out that they said “Merry Christmas” on them. Christmas. CHRIST-mas. Isn’t the name “Christ” enough? Do we really need a picture of Christ go with it, because we’re afraid that they’ll think we mean some other Christ? I mean, the fact that we are sending out Christmas cards, period, spins the act as a religious one.

While arguing, I refrained from saying that our cards are also from me, and if you ask me, they’re “too religious,” and if I’m going to sign my name to them I should not be misrepresented as endorsing JeebusCo. I did not propose that we send out separate cards—mine in un-Christmasy shades of dark blue and orange that say, “It’s December 25th! Eat cookies until you bloat,” leaving my spouse to send whatever he wants to whomever he wants, which means he’ll go back to what he was doing before he got married: don’t buy Christmas cards until January 12th, and then don’t send them anyway. I did not say any of this, because I wanted to avoid making another trip to TJ Maxx for more freakin’ Christmas cards that would please everyone. Plus, Christmas is not for arguing. It’s for wassailing and what not.

I was raised in a household that was also a little too religious for me. Not only did we send out cards that were religious enough for the Pope himself, but when we received cards from others, we were not allowed to display the secular ones, i.e. ones with Santa Claus on them. Santa Claus, in spite of being a saint, was not religious enough and did not depict the true meaning of Christmas—which was, as far as I could tell, to get up really early and go to church, an activity whose purpose was never explained to me adequately and from which I am still recovering. As an adult, I have my own reasons for hating Santa Claus, but they all have to do with my being a commie pinko Wal*Mart-boycotting treehugger. As a young atheist, I looked forward to the day that I would be able to choose the least religious Christmas cards ever manufactured and send them out to other sinners with whom I intended to become acquainted at the earliest possible opportunity.

To make our barely-religious Christmas cards pass muster with the relatives (his, not mine—mine are still impressed by the fact that I send Christmas cards at all), I got the bright idea of writing up a Christmas letter to tuck inside, to make me and my secular cards seem more, I don’t know, mainstream. Also, I’m a writer—I’m the one who should be sending out Christmas letters, right?

It turned out to be fun, an expression of ourselves, a way to keep in touch with people we only see every few months or years, and, as a person who has known me for more than five minutes might guess, a way to poke sly fun at Christmas letters. Since then, I swear our friends and relatives have gotten a little more relaxed about their mailed holiday greetings. The letters are funnier, the stories about the kids a little more down-to-earth; we also started getting Christmas letters from people who are single and/or childless. I’m not taking credit for this transformation. I’m not saying that I inspired anyone to do anything, but they have. It’s made me hate Christmas letters a lot less, and lighten up on worrying whether I’m caving under the weight of frankincense and myrrh. The point of Christmas letters is not to endorse aspects of Christian mythology, but to get letters from people, some of whom you actually like. Also, myrrh’s not that heavy.

Last year, a close friend of my spouse’s family, a kind, sweet woman in her late 70’s, sent us her Christmas card. It was, I assure you, religious enough—a Nativity scene on the front and a printed inscription about the birth of the baby Jeebus bringing us joy and peace this holy season. The usual. Except for one addition: our elderly friend had circled the word “PEACE” with her pen, drawn an arrow to the margin of the card, and written in block letters: “FAT CHANCE WITH THAT WAR CRIMINAL IN THE WHITE HOUSE.”

It was my favorite Christmas card ever. I am definitely taking credit for that one.