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Family Matters

The picture-perfect holiday


While words like “torture” and “cruel and unusual punishment” are not generally casually thrown around in conversation about The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I’d like to offer a proposition on the subject of those very things.
If anyone were to ask my non-expert opinion on the perfect persecution for the vilest of offenders and the Scroogiest of all Ebenezers, I would swiftly suggest subjecting them to a particular penalty so insufferable that they would never again so much as think of uttering the words, “Bah humbug.” I would sentence those poor souls to a family holiday card photo session with two young children.
Over the years, I’ve made a habit of saving a copy of each of our Christmas cards that we mail to 200 of our closest friends and family members. On a chilly morning in early December, I’ll ask Alexa to play classic Christmas music, brew myself a cup of coffee, add some peppermint mocha creamer, and begin adorning our home with garland and twinkle lights, nativities and nutcrackers, Frasier fir candles, and bowls full of candy canes.
As the perfect finishing touch, I’ll string a seasonal ribbon across our kitchen window and use my special box of miniature Christmas-patterned clothespins to attach to it my collection of nine years’ worth of Mullen family holiday cards. I will look at the sometimes funny, sometimes picture-perfect photos of my smiling family and hope that my children never remember the horrors of preparing for and capturing those precious moments.
There’s a photo card that depicts my daughter as a toddler and her two parents, all clad in matching Christmas pajamas and peeking over the railing of her crib for a picture taken with a tripod and a self-timer and the clever greeting, “Merry Christmas, from our crib to yours.” What the picture doesn’t show is that Mom’s bright idea to cajole Dad into donning green and white striped Hanna Andersson PJs and an extra-long, nightcap-style Santa hat, then climbing into a crib intended for one tiny baby resulted in an inwardly disgruntled (albeit very festive looking!) spouse and an irreparably bent and sagging mattress spring.
And then there was the year that along with visions of sugar plums, I came up with the grandiose plan of filling our red Radio Flyer wagon full of toys, strapping a reindeer antler headband on our old Labrador retriever, dressing my barely 1-year-old son in a full Santa suit and his precocious big sister as his pigtailed elf. The perfect props for a DIY front-yard photo shoot of my cute, cooperative subjects in their makeshift sleigh. How hard could it possibly be to get one decent shot? thought I.
Well, I didn’t account for a dog that would be so completely distressed by her new accessory that she would spook, sprinting circles around the yard, nearly upending the sleigh and Santa himself, despite the crazy lady behind the camera thinking that whistling with a dog treat balanced on her head would magically make Rudolph sit and smile.
I didn’t consider that mini-Santa might have a hard time comprehending why he couldn’t touch the two dozen or so of his own toys that literally surrounded him. Or that his elven sidekick would find it much more amusing to try to wrangle her wild doggie than to listen to her pleading mother.
The end result of that epic fail of a photo session was more shouted empty threats than I could even count; promises of hot chocolate and unlimited “Paw Patrol” for anyone willing to cooperate; tears from three out of five family members (I think my husband and my dog found a safe place behind a closed door to recover and commiserate); and a reel of hundreds of blooper shots that only now, five years later, can I look back at and realize are absolutely hilarious.
The front of our holiday card from 2017 is emblazoned with a photo of nothing but an empty wagon strung with Christmas lights — no child, parent or dog in sight — and the caption, “WE TRIED.”
After that fateful experience, we made our first attempt at professional Christmas photos. The result was a 5-by-7 card printed on high-quality cardstock that depicts an assortment of stills from our session. The subjects: two angelic-looking little people, seemingly deserving of the top two spots on Santa’s “nice list,” beaming from ear to ear, holding hands, with not a hair out of place in their coordinating plaid bowtie and dress. They are seated atop the laps of their fresh-faced, well-dressed parents.
If only the recipients of that charming card could have had a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to arrive at those well-coordinated images. There was a code-red meltdown over itchy tights. A mommy meltdown over “never having enough time to get myself ready!” A hostage-situation-level negotiation over wearing a hairbow. A lollipop bribe to stop yanking off a bowtie. A roadside stop on the way to the photography studio for a potty-training little boy, which inspired another meltdown from yours truly.
I can’t help but feel shame and guilt when I look at those images and reflect on my car ride tirade of, “How are we always late?! Do not pee on your nice shoes! Didn’t I tell everyone to go potty before we left?!? Stop picking at your tights!” And the way I hissed through gritted teeth as I smiled for the camera, “Stop poking each other or else! Just say ‘cheese!’ and look happy!” All that for a few deceivingly picturesque photos of a deceivingly put-together family for a card labelled, “Merry Christmas! Sending you warm wishes for a very happy holiday season!”
So, congratulations to those of you who are able to seamlessly pull off distributing your holiday cards in early November. Cards mailed in envelopes sourced from Bethlehem containing a glossy, gold foil-framed photo of your harmonious, coiffed, coordinated family, addressed by Santa himself in elaborate calligraphy penned with ink and feather plucked directly from a partridge in a pear tree and finished off with a scratch-and-sniff gingerbread-scented stamp.
I envy you. I try to be like you.
But one of these years, I might just give in to the madness and send all 200 of the folks on my mailing list a picture of us just the way we are: a mom with a messy bun and bags under her eyes; an unwaveringly patient dad; an 8-year-old girl giving her cowlicked little brother (wearing whatever the heck he wants) bunny ears.
The caption will read something like, “Wishing you a REAL-ly Merry Christmas.”