Press, press, press hard enough and I can think of something that isn’t wrong with the dysfunctional United States Post Service—my decades-long hope that USPS would be privatized is in vapors, no one’s that stupid; the ghost of John the Mailman, our always-smiling carrier on La Rue Dr. in Huntington would surely shake his head at his predecessors taking off on a gray day and making eight p.m. drop-offs; and, as always the dunning texts I get from banks not receiving my checks two weeks after posted—and that would be the lack of Christmas cards, a tradition that mostly died out at the turn of the century.
We receive about 20 Christmas or “holiday” cards each year, mostly from relatives, contractors and always a clever one from John Waters. No complaints here: my wife and I are sporadic now in keeping the once-mandatory (and fun) practice. Our kids are grown, so there’s no point in having a family picture taken (and my Irish mug is so decrepit that I’d unintentionally look like a Scrooge and scare small children); we were planning on a card featuring our Yorkie Billy in a crab costume, even took the picture, but the days slipped by and so the project fizzled.
When I was growing up my mom mailed around 200 store-bought cards, divided into two categories: a perfunctory “Merry Christmas From the Smiths” for ancillary sort-of-friends or acquaintances, and the deluxe treatment for 50 or so, including a two-page mimeo giving (sanitized) highlights from the year, and signed, “Fondly, Kay.” Starting around Dec. 15th, John would deliver around 20 a day to our house, and as the family’s youngest, I was allowed to open them. My dad took a half-hearted peek when arriving home from work, usually with a martini in hand. As I said, Mom did embellish a bit in her typewritten messages, but she wasn’t a patch on some of her friends, who’d claim that in Pleasant Valley Sunday all the kids were going to Ivy League schools, the new swimming pool was a godsend and the husband’s business was going blockbusters.
It goes without saying, as Ann Landers or Dear Abby would often comment at this time of year, these white lies concealed kids who dropped out of high school, bankruptcies and this or that scrape with the law. The sad exception was the news that a son was killed or maimed in Vietnam, and that was unnerving. My parents, although Republicans, were against the war as soon as JFK started to ramp it up (and when LBJ—not Goldwater—went out of control with the troops, destroying his legacy), undoubtedly because they had five sons (and when one of my brothers was 1-A in 1969, they had no qualms about him settling in Canada; he lucked out with a high draft lottery number) and fresh memories from all the friends they lost in WWII. Both of them bought Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in his ’68 campaign, which seemed Panglossian to me, but it’s not as if HHH offered any hope.
When Alan Hirsch and I owned Baltimore’s City Paper we mailed about 100 “Season’s Greetings” cards to advertisers, “friends of the paper” and editors and publishers of other weekly newspapers. The sample shown above was a photograph by Jennifer Bishop—she captured the Santa—and then doctored in our production department to include “The Dork Brothers” (John Ellsberry and Michael Gentile), snippets from Lynda Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” and Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell,” three of the comics we ran every week in the back of the paper, to bring attention to the housing classifieds and “dirty” ads (which were, in truth, a reason for many to pick up the paper).
Take a look at the clues to figure out what year it is: Late Night with David Letterman makes its debut on NBC; several MLB games postponed by April blizzard; Braniff International Airways goes broke and ceases all flights; Poltergeist is released; EPCOT Center opens; unemployment rate peaks at 10.8 percent; Kieran Culkin is born and Hans Conried dies; Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is published; Ozzie Osbourne is arrested for pissing on The Alamo; the Cure’s Pornography is released; Art Buchwald wins the Pulitzer Prize for “Commentary,” baffling anyone who bothered to read him; homosexuality is decriminalized (18 and older) in Northern Ireland; Tom Watson wins the British Open; Cal Ripken Jr. plays his first game; and Perry Ellis wins “Designer of the Year.”
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023