EACH DECEMBER WHEN I WAS A KID, I haunted our mailbox for a Christmas card I knew would come. It was a red-rimmed drawing of a gray snowman in a lighter gray snowfield, inscribed with red lettering, “Happy Holidays from the Peabodys.” The name wasn’t really the Peabodys; it was a more singular name I won’t reveal, just in case another generation of that family is still sending out that same card. Because the point is: It was always the same card.
By far the weirder point is: We didn’t know the Peabodys.
My parents got a huge charge out of this, and up the card would go every year in pride of place on our picture-card door, alongside the lustrous portraits of their friends’ families. By year-size intervals I watched whole families grow up on that door, their photos becoming wedding portraits, then multigenerational spreads…all while those faithful Peabodys kept sending—for three decades!—that same gray snowman. To people they didn’t know.
Dad figured it was probably a family-owned business we’d patronized once. But to me and my siblings the greeting from our mystery friends became a ritual of the season—a random and inexplicable ritual, like the fact that Santa insisted on putting dates in our Christmas stockings, but a ritual just the same. And thus meaningful, in a meaningless sort of way.
I think about all this every year as I sit down with my own family’s Christmas card list. To whom has our card become (air quotes) meaningful? Old neighbors we haven’t laid eyes on since moving seven years ago? My college roommate’s other best friend, who made it to the list after we all had a Napa weekend in 1992? She now has a husband and children who have never met me and who surely greet my family smiling down off their picture-card door the same way my family greets hers: “Who the hell are these people?”
Every year I wonder, Is this the year to take them off the list?—just before I throw up my hands and slap on their address label. Removing them just feels cold. Sure, they might not notice—but what if they did? In that case our sudden radio silence might itself constitute a greeting. “We officially no longer care what kind of holidays you have.”
So our list morphs a little every year into something bearing an ever-odder relationship to our actual life. The people we see most we may not quite regard as Christmas card friends; they are the people who inhabit our orbits—spinning in and out of proximity as work schedules and carpools change—but not necessarily our hearts. Some of these we’d love to slide into the close-friend category—but, candidly, past the age of 40 that shift is rare. Those famously fertile environments that nurture the deepest roots—freshman dorms, first workplaces, co-op preschools—are in the rear-view mirror by the second half of life, when most of us have too little time in our workaday routines to entwine roots.
As for our close friends, unless they happen to be the parents of my kid’s pals or the people I work with, I can identify them—pitifully—by how rarely I see them. Like I said: orbits. They’re on my Christmas card list for sure, right along with the laid-off ex-coworkers and 15th cousins. And, alas—the obsolete friendships.
Putting it all together, I have a list that has burgeoned like a misshapen topiary, where the head and wings have grown out of proportion to the body. Suddenly that sleek swan has bloated into something formless and unnatural. A turducken.
How I’d love a simple calculus for pruning it! A regulation equation, where you divide the number of years you’ve known your friend, say, by the years since you’ve seen them—subtract five if you’ll realistically never see them again, add 10 if you were ever super close. (And, for scorekeeping types: Halve if you never receive a card from them; double if you want them to see that you kayaked the Maldives last year.)
But in my bones I know there’s no such equation, because I know that the Christmas card list is never just the Christmas card list. One year I had an idea: I won’t cut it; I’ll build it—from scratch. Yes! But even as I sat sipping my tea and jotting names…even that seemingly simple exercise quickly frothed into a philosophical boil on the nature of friendship itself. Whose lives do I want to keep touching as I stare down the diminishing barrel of my own? I thought, alarmingly. Is staying in touch important because of possibilities for the future…or memories of the past?
As more and more of my contemporaries flee the oppressively small town that is Facebook, my family Christmas card becomes the single slender thread tethering us to those who populate our history; the outstretched hand linking us to those we want in our future. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a single piece of 110-pound card stock.
And so I vow that this year I’ll be better at staying in touch with the people I love, in substantive ways—ways that look like actual friendship. Even as I fill the mailbox with little gray snowmen, hoping that their recipients have the slightest idea who we are.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met.