I found my Christmas cards the other day, in the bottom of a bag where I keep my hopes and dreams for becoming an organized person. They were addressed and ready to go. I went ahead and dropped them by the post office. It’s an election year, so I figure people will welcome wishes of good cheer, even if the wishes come months later than I meant for them to.
I love the holidays. I really do. There is a certain cheer—an ineffable magic—in the air that I can’t ignore. Children are excited, it’s scarf weather, and we get to enjoy all those delicious holiday beverages stirred all syrupy and sweet into red cups that may or may not be sending us straight to hell.
But, there is one thing about the holiday season that I can no longer stomach, and that is the Holiday Letter. Cards, I can handle, but those letters have to go.
They are long epistles on pretty paper depicting the Currier and Ives lives people want us to see. They abound with stories of promotions, new houses, and accomplishments about how little Suzie made straight As (again) and Junior finally made the winning goal in the All Star regional soccer championship in Where-Do-They-Live-Again?, USA. And lest we forget that epic Memorial Day Family Reunion at Gulf Shores, they graciously include a 5x7 color photo of the entire clan emblazoned with “#blessed” across the bottom.
I vow every year to do an honest holiday letter:
I’m sorry this letter is 12 weeks late, but I couldn’t remember to get ink for the printer. We’ve had a decent year, but we were overdrawn in our checking account at least three times. The cat continues to pee on our bed, but we finally got a new vacuum (#doghair). The kids are fine. They are constantly on some type of screen and argue too much. They have donuts and Sprite for breakfast multiple times a week. Love, The Walkers
Maybe I’ll get to it next year. If I can remember to send them out.
The truth is, I haven’t been able to take a holiday letter seriously since our family Christmas dinner involved getting a pat down by a rather large corrections officer.
A few years back, my family gathered at the Tennessee Prison for Women. We weren’t there to do a Christmas meal for the inmates, or to participate in an act of holiday service. We were there to visit my sister. She was in the middle of a five-year sentence.
It turned out to be one of my favorite Christmas memories.
After our pat downs, signatures, and rule reviews, we stepped into a tiny room and a heavy door closed behind us. In front of us was an identical door, big and solid, waiting to be unlocked. For a long moment, we were left standing in between the outside and the inside, with only little windows to show us where we had come from, and a sliver of the room to where we were going. I remember thinking that must be exactly how it was for my sister—the constant awareness of being in a tiny space where all you can see is where you’ve been and only a sliver of where you are going, and not being 100% comfortable with either.
Eventually, there was a loud buzzing, then a series of clicks and tugs, metal on metal screeching, more buzzing, and the slow pull of the door sliding open. We stepped into the prison rec room and scanned it for my sister.
There she was, across the way and on the other side of yet another barrier, smiling, waving, excited to see us. But when they opened that door for her to finally come through, she was focused primarily on one person: her daughter. She quickly made her way over to my niece, picked her up and held her close. Soon, she was introducing her to the guards and the other inmates and their families. Prison doors and protocol seem to melt away when it comes to the business of proud mothers and their daughters. My sister may have made her share of mistakes, but she knew her sweet girl wasn’t one of them, and she was delighted.
The rest of our visit wasn’t unlike our usual family holiday gatherings. There was barbecue, even if it did come out of a vending machine. There were efforts to get my daughter and my niece to settle down, and quit climbing on furniture. Again, a typical family dinner. There was singing and loud laughter and stern looks from a guard. (And if you substitute a corrections officer uniform for a Cracker Barrel uniform, it felt like a regular Sunday.)
There was Uno and soda and story-telling and remembering. There were hugs, and a few tears, and finally, goodbye.
Each year, I think of that Christmas and how our family was able to be in that moment, even as the big, heavy door slammed behind us. I am struck by how my parents, in their sixties, are raising my sister’s child, and how, now that she is out of prison, gets to be part of her raising her, too. I’m struck by the fear that there are no guarantees, that the Currier and Ives moments of our lives are fleeting and imperfect.
It doesn’t sound good in a Christmas letter, but the truth is, we all just seem to be standing in that in between place of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, waiting for the door to slide open.