At Christmas we return, however partially, to an analog existence. Our minds wander to the days of yesteryear when life was simpler, distractions fewer, and the smiles of extended family were directed at us when we arrived at those annual pilgrimage sites. We forego our propensity to be captivated by the digital morass of our culture and, for a few weeks, we do things with our hands and with others. We gather, we laugh, we complain, we cry, we hug, we play board games. We look at Christmas lights, visit winter wonderlands, attend theatre and plays, and even the obligatory Church service. At Christmas, we re-member…life. We return to ourselves as we return to one another.
We travel to the shed, or the basement storage, and unpack all the decorations that have been lying dormant for 11 months. We recruit everyone in the family to help “bring up a tote.” We put up Christmas trees and decorate them with our children. We play Christmas songs and the voice of Nat King Cole echoes throughout the hallways. Even our SiriusXM radios are tuned into the same songs our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents would have enjoyed. There is something transcendent when we see Bing Crosby and Danny Kay moving across the TV, just like they did in White Christmas.
In the kitchen we get out recipes, the old German ones that our great grandmothers passed down to our mothers and to us. We use the same cookie cutters we used back in 1950 and in 1965 and in 1995, holding these relics in our hands that were held by loved ones no longer here. We roll up sausage balls, make banana and fruit breads, and fill the cooking space with sublime smells. However fleeting, these acts make us feel like our entire family is with us, as if grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, are over on the couch, sipping hot cocoa while the world outside pauses in celebration of the season of Christmas.
At Christmas, we bring back simplicity. We bring back memories. We bring back our humanity. We return to one another. We become what we are, analog beings, the way most people always were.
Another forlorn act of analog Christmas is the Christmas card.
As a child, I remember the barrage of Christmas cards that would arrive at my parents mailbox in the month of December. Back then Christmas cards were not afterthoughts; they were sincere exchanges, containing written remarks, letters, or even gifts in the form of $1 bills, dropped by another human, into a mailbox, just for us. This took work, effort, time. Nobody made anyone send Christmas Cards and nobody sent one accidentally. It was what people did, a way of saying, “You are in my thoughts this Holiday Season.” The inconvenience of buying physical cards, writing in them, addressing the envelopes, buying postage, and then mailing them, was an afterthought. We lived life with others and the fabric of human relationships was woven tightly between mailboxes in the Christmas’ of my childhood.
Many cards would arrive from casual acquaintances, folks you had collected along the journey of moves and new jobs. These cards would usually just say, “Merry Christmas,” and signed by the Lady of the House. You could tell by the handwriting. The thought was nice, and I can still hear my parents say, “oh, how nice, look who sent us a Christmas card,” followed by a brief memory about that person and maybe the last time we’d seen them. Perhaps a comment would be made, “I need to call them after the New Year.” My parents had the odd tradition of taping every card they received to the door mantle that led from the kitchen to the living room. As I recall, this was a tradition of my grandparents too. I remember flipping up each one to see who it was from, the doorway lined with them by December 25.
The Christmas cards that meant the most where the ones from my grandparents. These were the best cards because they would have money, and when accompanied with a box, my grandma would mail us cookies and perhaps a pair of mittens for outdoors. I loved my grandmas’ cookies, even the broken ones that arrived in a million pieces. They didn’t taste the greatest, but they were pressed out, shaped, and baked by the only hands on earth that could do it quite like that. They were homemade and cut with sanctified cookie molds she had been using since right after World War II. Nothing in the world hit my tastebuds like grandmas cookies on Christmas or seeing a card addressed to me written in her handwriting. And she would always sign it “Love, Gramma and Grampa.”
As I recall the analog existence and holy significance of the Christmas card, I am still not sure what continues to hold my imagination: was it the physical card itself or the notion that somewhere, someone, used a writing utensil and wrote my name, took time to address me, and then directed something specifically to me? It was not a media post or a social announcement; it was an intimate form of communication, written from one person to another, from one family to another family. It was for me, not the world, and that made it special. Yes, I think this is it. In a world where our names are lost, and so few speak directly to us anymore, there is something heavenly about receiving a card that is directed to you…and then signed by one who remembered your name and your address.
As I grew older, and married, the weight of the Christmas Card fell into the new married life my wife and I began in 2001. How does one know where to send the Christmas Card? The address book, of course! A threshold object many newlyweds acquired back then was the “address book.” The address book is where you kept phone numbers, and literal addresses, in case you needed to get in touch with someone. In a way, it was a lifeline, a grown-up connection that one was ushered into at the threshold of marriage. I never had an address book as a teenager, or a college student, but now, as a married person, my wife and I needed the address book. It was meet and right that our house would keep in touch with other houses. My wife has more legible writing than myself, so she authored the holy writ of the address book and I remember getting many of our “new contacts” from my mother’s address book. This was the baseline of connection. My new family was an extension of my raising. Dutifully, we would update our address book when we moved, when others moved, when phone numbers changed. This analog codex was the thing of constant revision, but it was also the thing where temporary locations were etched in its stone pages. We still have ours; it feels odd even picking it up, but at one time it was the conduit of connection, the way we would speak with others. It held the key to doors separated by hundreds of miles.
This Christmas season we sent out a Christmas Letter to family and friends. Just an update and a hello to those who might care for a kindly message of both. It has been at least 4 years since our last one. After compiling a list of addressees by memory, I picked up the old address book just to be sure I left no stone unturned, and all people addressed that needed such addressing. Flipping through these pages after years of paying this antiquated book little heed, I saw in its pages more than addresses and phone numbers. I saw more than names and all our previous residences; I saw our life. I saw how big and rich my family had become because I married my wife, my parents married one another, and their parents married one another, and so forth. I saw all those we used to live it with, some here, many gone. This old book no longer contained static data; it contained a history, my history, our history. There was a tinge of sadness as I passed over the names of our grandparents, my dad, extended family, and church folk whose names had been crossed out because their current address is only known by God. What I would have given to be able to send them a Christmas Letter in 2022. What I wouldn’t give to make a pilgrimage once again to 1405 Beachland or Damron Branch Road.
They all sent me Christmas Cards, they used to anyway. I got out their old Christmas Cards and read them. They were written to me once upon a time, just not this year. I can trace my finger over the pressed paper, hand carved, when they sent me this note all those years ago. This year my mailbox is much emptier, even though my heart is full of characters that once ushered me into the analog of life and the joy of Christmas connection. They addressed a card to me, and I to them; God addressed us all to one another.
As I early turned the page, I saw the names, “Maynard and Helen Cross,” and immediately my mind raced to that red plastic barn mailbox where Maynard Cross’ name strode atop its black gambrel roof. Thankfully, this is an address I can still use, even though only half of that equation is at the address. I recalled with fondness that Easter Sunday in 2003, in the nearly erased Appalachian town of Winfield, TN, atop the Cumberland Plateau, when for a final time we sat around the table with Maynard for what would be his last Easter Sunday in those rolling mountain hills. He was wrapped in a light brown robe, with red stripped design, a slight grin on his face, the usual cup of coffee in his right hand, and his balding head aglow from the table light that was used to brighten the small 10×7 kitchen. We sat with him and stared at the birds having breakfast outside the double glass doors of his dinette. Cardinals, sparrows, robins, they had all arrived in time to announce Spring. Their chirping hellos were filled with foreboding goodbyes.
That moment is lost to time, but is present in my memory, here, in this address book, as I address Helen and affix her name to the front of an envelope containing a Christmas letter. He was my wife’s grandfather, the only grandfather she ever knew, and we held captive that Easter Sunday morning with him and his precious wife in the kitchen built with his own hands. We talked, we remembered, we shared. We went analog. We did something for the first time, spending Easter morning with him. It was also something we did for the last time, knowing that when we backed out of the driveway and rolled past the house, that we’d likely not see him again. Spring had come to say hello. Before it was over, he would return its goodbye.
Who would have thought that sending out a Christmas Card or note could contain such powerful lived moments with others? Acts of analog humanity being kindled by an analog memory that didn’t happen on the internet, yet true. This ancient act of inscribing a name on an envelope now only lives on in our telling and living. The addressees are often no longer there; now they are much closer. We’ve given up on the ancient practice of writing; we’ve given up on the power and humanity of addressing and naming.
Christmas returns to give us back to ourselves, reminding us of our simple origins. Angels, Stars, and a holy family needing a place to rest, are interwoven with cookies, and songs, and giving gifts that only happen in the simplicity of being human. None of us think much of all those phony email Christmas well wishes anyhow. Christmas is, in a sense, God’s Christmas card to the world: a note to us, and for us, to once again remind us how to live with one another. It is the reminder that the meaning of life is found in the Incarnation, in doing life. It matters so immensely, that even God must come (Advent) and do life with us. The Christmas Card beckons us to the manger, and at the manger, we are with one another. We return to analog…we return to the beginning as our end.
Christmas brings us home…and the Christmas Card is the letter that always comes from, and arrives, at our home address.
As I finished pressing the last address into the front of the green envelopes that would carry our holiday letter, I thought to myself, “will all these letters reach their destination? Will they be read? Will they hear their name as I address them? What does it matter that I perform this ancient ritual of writing for and addressing to?”
Ah, my good friend nihilism once again attempting to sabotage the doing and the sending.
The power of the Christmas Card lies not in its arrival, but in its writing. I can no more ensure its physical arrival than I can ensure its literary or interpretive one. So, we do not send Christmas Cards for this reason. Rather, it is in the writing that we become the addressor and someone else becomes the addressee. In the writing, and addressing, is the naming, the acknowledging, the hoping. This simple act of inscription is the act of seeing another and embracing them. It is this act, one that sends Christmas Cards from out of antiquated address books, that gives us the greatest gift of all: the gift of being again. A return to our analog existence. A return to ourselves and one another.