Michael Smerconish: Holiday cards are more than just 'seasons greetings'

Our holiday cards are going out late this year, mainly because my wife and I have been super busy. Plus, the older our kids get, the more interested they've become in the negotiation over which family photo we'll use. Add in the annual debate over the greeting, and we're up against the mailing deadline for arrival by Christmas.

We went with "Be Merry and Bright," and based on the early returns in our mailbox, so did many others. "Live, laugh, love" is another biggie this year. "Merry Christmas"? Not so much. One family went with "All is calm, all is bright." I wish I'd thought of that.

I don't know what the over/under is in terms of the age of your kids when you stop sending pictures, but I think we're up against it. I've taken my wife and each of our four children to a different White House Christmas party with President Barack and Michelle Obama. Each has yielded a terrific photo. I thought it would be unique to send a collection of them all, but judging from the result of a CBS News poll last week, that wouldn't go over so well in 57 percent of the recipient houses. Maybe next year it'll be our photographic swan song.

As I've noted before, holiday cards are one of my favorite parts of the season. In a world of 140-character communications, they're not a bad way of catching up.

Who knew Bobby Flood grew up to be a stud and is playing football at Elon? Judging by the return address, I think Roy Zimmerman, the first elected attorney general of Pennsylvania, has dropped the title "Honorable," and, if the terrific photo is any indication, it looks as if he's content to instead be known as Granddad. I'm glad to see the Alberts looking so happy in Center City. The Shield kids have really grown up. Billy Bob is now Bill. (Just like our "Lucky" is now "Simon.") Based on the card I received, I can report that little Nicholas Haag has gotten his first full set of teeth, and the Fields vacationed in a bucolic spot.


Thus far this year, I particularly appreciated a handwritten note from James (and Dianne) Humes quoting "Richard III." The former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and Lady Margaret Thatcher penned: "As the Bard wrote, 'Thy voice is thunder but thy looks are humble.'" Funny, I thought he was trying to tell me I have a face for radio. My wife says I missed the point.

Humes' investment in his card would earn plaudits from Eric Hoover, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, who published an op-ed in the Washington Post this month lamenting the lack of personalized cards. ("... these prefabricated greetings seem as empty as a stocking someone forgot to stuff"). That's an indictment of the way we do it, and frankly, as do most of our friends. I tracked him down to discuss his observations and admitted my use of an Excel spreadsheet to organize my process.

"There's nothing morally wrong or evil or bad necessarily about the way you do your cards," he told me. "I've just noticed that over the years it's becoming more and more of a thing where I get this card which I can tell came to me through some distant removed process and the 'sender' of the card probably never even touched it."

Uh oh. Truth is, we don't touch them. We leave that to Bill at Argus in Wayne. Hoover's litmus test? Ink.

"Call me old-fashioned," he said. "When I see ink ... I think just for a second that feels good."

I know what he means. Even when I see a simple "XOXOXO" on a card I feel as if I got the personal touch.

I value the cards we receive, signed or not. Even the narratives. I may forget that you have kids, but once reminded, I like hearing that they made the honor roll. When the season ends, they go into shoe boxes emblazoned with the year and are placed in the attic. I don't know when I expect to sit and peruse them, but I can't stand to part with them.

The only person I know who takes this as seriously as I do is Paul Lauricella, a Philadelphia lawyer who is the Signe Wilkinson or Tony Auth of Christmas cards. Every year, his hand-drawn cards come complete with biting political commentary. Last year's card was Santa's Twitter page, which included posts @santa from, among others, David Petraeus ("Santa, the next time I ask for a biographer for Christmas, please send me Doris Kearns Goodwin").


The cards are not all fun and games. When I slide my finger down the spreadsheet, I take note of changes of address, births and deaths. This is an annual, take-stock moment. It pains me to think that Roy Shapiro is gone. The legendary general manager of KYW Newsradio passed recently at age 76. (The older I get, the younger that sounds.) Worse was the passing of Paul Pratt. Just 18, Paul was an Episcopal Academy high school student who passed in May in a one-car accident on the eve of his participation in the Stotesbury Regatta. My wife and I watched Paul grow from a hyperactive kid to a mature, handsome scholar and athlete whose rowing talents were being recruited by Harvard.

A computer will once again address our card to the Pratt family. But it doesn't mean we won't be thinking of them. It's all in the cards.

Michael Smerconish is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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