With shaking fingers, she reached into the stained old envelope and removed a white card, now tinted yellow with age. The cover design was simple: a stylized silhouette of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus. Above, in faded, water-stained red letters were the words "Joyeux Noel." As she opened the card, her eyes scanned the words at first without recognizing their meaning, simply cherishing the shape of the letters. In her mind, she could see him sitting in a shelter as he meticulously wrote with numb fingers:
Wish I could be there. I've got you a present when I get home. Tell Rich daddy loves him.
Remember that I love you and Merry Christmas, Honey.
-- your Ed"
Growing up, I had heard the story a hundred times. A friend of my mother's received a Christmas card from her husband years after his death. The card had been found in a bombed-out depot in France, and the Army made sure the sacks of mail reached the veterans' last known addresses. It became the young widow's most cherished possession. It also became one of my mother's favorite stories to tell while preparing our own Christmas cards.
That preparation of the cards was a major part of celebrations for a military family separated from our relatives by the Atlantic Ocean. It was also a means of introducing the younger children to their relatives. Mom would bring out her family album, and as she wrote out a card to Aunt Rosanel she would show us pictures of family gatherings and explain who each member was. For my family, the stories became repeated each year until we knew them by heart; they served as the adhesive which kept our sense of belonging to the family intact.
The tradition of sending holiday cards has gone through changes over the generations, but always has served the same purpose: to allow us an opportunity to review our relationships and find the value of each. And, surprisingly, those simple little pieces of folded paper have the magic ability to repair broken hearts and mend tattered friendships. This year, I received a card from an old fraternity brother whom I had not seen in years. We had a "falling out" over something many years ago, and have not spoken although we both live in Georgia. When I opened that card, all anger at this gentleman dissipated. I remembered the nights spent studying in the same room, the famous Pi Kappa Phi Christmas parties, and days we spent sitting in the old Augusta College Student Center.
When my wife asked if I thought we could really settle our dispute, I stared at the card in my hand and slowly nodded my head.
The style of card we choose reflects our innermost thoughts and emotions concerning the holiday season, as it also reflects the generations we have lived through. My aunt, shortly after my marriage, chose a nativity scene to send her message of introduction to my new family. One could not ask for a better character reference.
My mother was fond of displaying all the cards we had received over the years on the wall of our living room. She had one of those felt Christmas tree wall hangings made with pockets to hold the cards. Even as a child, I could see the evolution that the greeting cards had gone through. Most of my mother's cards received during our country's wars invoked a desire for one thing: peace. Between wars, they also contained a more whimsical and joyful character reflecting post-war cheer of a peace-time America. Even those containing religious themes pointed to the nativity being a symbol of joy for man.
This miraculous Holy Night inspired both shepherds and kings to forget their differences and kneel at the feet of a poor carpenter's son. Likewise, Christmas cards tend to make friends, families and coworkers forget past indiscretions and come together with an almost visible aura of affection. Just as shepherds lay small homemade gifts of wood and straw next the gifts of kings, a child's hand-scrawled card is laid next to the gold-foiled card from Macy's. Somehow, in my mind's eye, I can see the baby and his mother smiling equally at both.
Hope that your Christmas is filled with warmth and love this season.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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