The Atrocious Christmas Card

MARY DEAN is the nom de plume of two Cambridge, Massachusetts, ladies. One is a writer of fiction who graduated from Radcliffe; the other is an alumna of Bennington.

Yesterday, while we were at the stationer’s, we noticed that the large books of sample Christmas cards had arrived, and we lost no time in studying them. This year we are going to get to work on our Christmas cards early, and they are going to be perfect: original, but not bizarre; restrained, but not afraid of feeling; joyful, as befits the season, but with a sweet underlying soberness. Our cards are going to be like ourselves, in fact — perceptive, but delicate; keen, but never sharp; warm, but not cloyingly effusive.

We are going to send a great many cards. For the last few years we have cut corners because of the incredible demands on our time at the holiday season. There are all sorts of people we want to remember, and it might be a good idea to start jotting their names down as we think of them, so we will have them on hand when the time comes. This will prevent that foolish business which occurred last year, when one of us had eleven cards left and could think of nobody to send them to.

The cards we choose this year must have a generous expanse of blank paper, because we are going to write a note on each. Not just a line above our signature, but a warm message briefly summing up our year, reaffirming our friendship, and including suitable holiday sentiments.

We had not turned many pages in the first sample book when we realized all over again how difficult it is to pick out a perfect Christmas card. It is not surprising how few of our friends are able to select tastefully.

We decided it would be a help if someone wrote a primer of don’ts for Christmas cards. But when we thought about the people we knew with enough sensitivity to do the job, we recalled our New Year’s resolution (lying these ten months in desuetude) not to pass the buck, and we shouldered the task ourselves.

A stand must be made against family-photograph Christmas cards. Taken by amateurs and cheaply reproduced by the dozens, they are usually dreadful pictures, technically. If they are recent shots, they are framed against an ersatz Christmas background, and the family smiles emit a patently false holiday gaiety. More often, they were taken last year under the Christmas tree or before the decorated fireplace, and though authentic, are out-of-date. That cocker spaniel on the hearth, for instance, was run over in August. And that plump, spectacled girl in pigtails has lost fifteen pounds, wears her hair in a pouf, has contact lenses, and threatens to leave home if her family sends out that hideous shot of her.

A noxious variant of the family photograph is the aerial shot of the family place. People who own property which they count in acres are inordinately fond of seeing these acres from on high, and have a touching conviction that their friends share this pleasure. Nearly all aerial Christmas cards have a queer lightstruck place a little behind or on one side of the house. This is practically never the garage going up in flames, but is the swimming pool with the sun reflected on it.

If there are neither children nor a country place in the life of a Christmas-photograph enthusiast, friends are likely to get a picture of the family pet, or pets. We cannot express ourselves too vehemently against that snapshot of the backs of two director’s chairs, with “Merry" written across one and “Christmas” across the other, and two sullen poodles in Santa Claus caps cringing on the seats.

Let us make one thing clear. It is not the idea of the Christmas photograph we object to. but the prevailing mediocrity of the photography and the vulgarity of the subject matter. We have, ourselves, sent out perfectly charming photographs of our children for Christmas cards. But in these cases the pictures themselves stood out as minor works of art. I hose young profiles, with back lighting from the fire, touched everyone who saw them, whether they personally knew our youngsters or not. But we digress

There must be a stop to all professional Christmas cards. We do not want to hear from our dentist, our bank, or even our psychiatrist at this holy and innocent season. Last year the card from our Savings and Loan bank was a reproduction of a New England landscape, hand-pasted on heavy gilt paper, folded four times, with tissue paper inside. Not two weeks later we heard that the interest rate on our loan had advanced a quarter of a percent. To add insult to injury, we received two identical cards from the bank, the envelopes addressed in different female hands, since different secretaries had duplicated lists. We were filled with the gravest apprehensions as to the soundness and efficiency of this financial institution.

Don’t think we are not democratic in our disapproval of professional Christmas cards. It makes no difference to us whether the people or institutions involved are richer or poorer than we are. One of our most painful moments every year is the discovery, sometime during the week before Christmas, of that rain-soaked card from the garbage man. It is always a picture of a poinsettia, which has over the years turned us against this harmless flower; it is always limp, with a blurred signature; and we never find it the first day it is slid under the garbage can handle, but on the second day, lying in the driveway, after the dogs and the elements have had their way with it.

The upshot of our study of Christmas card samples was that we could find nothing we liked. So in the afternoon we went over to the Art Museum and discovered just the right thing among the lovely postcards they sell there near the door. It’s a detail from a Christmas altar triptych by Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) showing just the sleeve of one angel and the left ear and hair of another. Since there were only a few dozen of these, we filled out with an equally lovely one: a detail from a preliminary study by Rubens for a painting (never executed) of the Holy Family. It shows a marvelously articulated human foot, heavily veined and muscled, so that it must belong to St. Joseph or a worshiping shepherd. And in one corner there is a fragment of something, a shard of pottery or a leaf, no doubt. We are terribly pleased with our selections. What could be more appropriate, more seasonal, and in more irreproachable taste ! There is plenty of room on each card for a message, a four-cent stamp will suffice, and there are no envelopes to lick.

Freud Frappé


After an assault on medicine, undertaken because she “wasn’t harried enough.”at the University of Chicago, RILYN BABCOCK went into journalism. This is her first appearance in the ATLANTIC.

If you’re looking for me, I’m the one sitting in the remote corner, observing a cocktail party.

I came into this room a few minutes ago, hale and hearty and ready for talk. I ventured an opinion, I think it was about the weather, and my host said. “You’re feeling hostile again tonight, aren’t you, Rilyn?" and handed me a martini. Then I stuttered an apology and my hostess said, “Now there’s a Freudian slip.”The fact that the stammer had no sexual significance whatever is beside the point. So here I am, sitting in my corner, ignored but not ignoring.

I recall with something akin to nostalgia the old days when, at a dinner party, conversational taboos were broken with the bread. What with good wine and one thing and another, a political battle ensued, and then a rousing religious fight. All the guests left maddened but unconvinced by their friends’ arguments. The next party was more conversationally subdued, but the following affair was a little more invigorating, and the next was a guaranteed brawl. These stimulating sessions are, I fear, things of the past.

I’m saying here and now that this is to the bad, because if we cannot fight, we cannot talk. And if we cannot talk, we might as well all stay in the corner, or go home.

I suspect that the communication barriers are being put up by the deadly practice of the Freudian shift, or what is known as fractured Freud or addled Adler. All conversation is by indirection.

For instance, turn around and look at that pretty woman in the bright-red wig who is standing over there with her best friend in her own brunette hair. Red Wig just said, “It’s good to ventilate your emotions.”Natural Brunette nodded. What Red Wig meant was, “Let’s gossip.” But it’s a fairly safe bet that Natural Brunette was nodding for another manhattan and not to her ventilating sister.

Let’s pursue Red Wig’s conversation, and I’ll tag on what could be a middle-line translation:

“He’s definitely schizoid” (My husband no longer loses me).

“He’s full of hostilities” (He hates me).

“He’s paranoid” (He thinks I hate him).

“He has some sort of sibling psychosis” (He hates his brothers).

“He’s perverse” (He hates his mother and father).

“He feels insecure at work” (He hates his boss).

“He’s made a successful transference” (He hates his analyst).

“He cannot relate” (He hates everybody).

“He can’t allay his anxieties" (Even the dog).

“I fulfill his neurotic needs” (I hate him back).

“We’re resolving our difficulties” (The divorce will be final next week).

Leaning against the home bar is a man in a yellow vest who is trying to communicate with a business acquaintance. Yellow Vest is talking about the new man in the office:

“Psychologically speaking" (Here are the facts).

“George wears sincere ties" (Black).

“He’s made a quick adjustment" (Already he’s out for my job).

“He has great insight" (He knows I know it).

“He has strong dependency drives” (He’s dating the boss’s daughter).

“My analyst says” (Freud, Adler, or Fromm wrote).

“My business will improve with my interpersonal relationships” (Meet me for lunch. Fll pick up the tab).

Flic young couple standing in the opposite corner were strangers twenty minutes ago. Whether they’ll be strangers tomorrow is the point under discussion. Let’s examine the girl’s conversation:

“I’m ambivalent” (Yes and no).

“I’m impulsive, though" (Yes).

“But compulsive” (No).

“Yet aggressive” (Yes).

“However, I block easily” (No).

“But there are no absolutes” (Maybe).

“Occasionally I need to escape reality” (Yes).

“And everyday stress” (Dinner, you said?).

Not faring quite that well is the slightly older man with his new companion who just raised her eyebrows and said, “Now, that was certainly fraught with Freudian significance.” What she meant was, “I don’t like dirty jokes.”

As you can see, the fifty-minutehour crowd has replaced the vodka martini crowd. The dreamworld dominates. Couch charades have taken over. The voice of the neurotic is heard in our land.

I cannot suggest a cure — there is no cure for either them or us. But perhaps a new understanding can arise out of a glossary for the nonanalyzed — translations from the couch, as it were,

I sneezed. “Excuse me.” My hostess rushed up and said, “Well, what did you mean by that?” I could well ask her what she meant by asking what I meant, but let it go. Let it go.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my corner.