This year, nearly half of Americans are sending holiday cards to connect with loved ones, according to a survey conducted by Shutterfly. I wonder how many of them are, like me, doing so out of a sense of obligation tinged with dread. While greeting cards and their feel-good platitudes can seem like a heartwarming, or at least harmless, holiday tradition, the truth is that for dysfunctional families like mine, they can be weaponized to inflict emotional pain.
A FedExed Christmas card was the only thing that stood between my uncle and a season’s worth of drama, anger and self-satisfied finger-wagging.
The warm greetings, good wishes and array of smiling faces these cards contain generally conceal this dark undercurrent, of course. That is why I was relieved to find out that some of my fellow participants in support groups for toxic families have experienced the same holiday card-related guilt-tripping and conflict that I have. Now I want others who feel similarly to know they’re not alone either, even as I look for ways to minimize my participation in this holiday tradition.
One of my clearest childhood memories involved my uncle nearly forgetting to send his mother (my grandmother) a holiday card. At the time, he lived in New York, and she lived in Florida. He panicked when, two days before Christmas, he still hadn’t deposited a card in the mail. Realizing his mistake, he rushed out to buy one and overnighted it via FedEx, earning it its place as the most expensive holiday card in our family’s history.
As a child, I couldn’t understand why sending (or forgetting to send) a card held so much power. We connected with most family members over the holidays, and I knew for a fact that all of us would speak to my grandmother within hours of waking on Christmas morning. But a FedExed Christmas card was the only thing that stood between my uncle and a season’s worth of drama, anger and self-satisfied finger-wagging.
That was only a harbinger of Christmases future. In my family, forgetting to send cards, or failing to send a card that struck the exact right tone at the exact right time, earned someone a direct ticket to the dog house until the aggrieved decided they were no longer angry, a decision that could take until Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve or, occasionally, all the way to Easter.
This experience of ruined holidays, heated arguments and long-term grudges over manufactured slights with greeting cards imbued me with the toxic belief that being graded on the performance of sending holiday cards was an accurate way to measure my worth as a family member and friend.
It’s no wonder that I’m working on ways to completely bow out of this expectation — an effort that still fills me with guilt and discomfort until I remember that authentically connecting with my own needs and taking care of my mental health matter just as much as family.
According to licensed psychotherapist Sharon Martin, “we run the risk of spending all our time, energy, and money making other people happy without considering our own needs” when we participate in holiday traditions out of a sense of obligation or to please others.
As I slowly work to relieve myself of ritualistic obligations in the name of reclaiming a sense of self and establishing my own (drama-free) traditions, the choice to refuse participation even in something as minor as sending holiday cards has become another way to establish boundaries.
Yet, I’m still struggling with my decision to heavily reduce the number of cards I sent this year. The nagging and long-engrained feeling that I am not a good person if I’m not sending holiday greetings to everyone I know gnaws at some of my deepest insecurities, continuing my capitulation to send at least some cards.
Still, I did succeed in cutting the list from 50 to 12, saving a hefty chunk of change for postage that I could use in a different way. I decided to follow in the footsteps of a friend who announced that she, too, was forgoing cards and instead opting to donate to Planned Parenthood, an organization that happens to be close to my heart. Thanks to her, I’m excited to reimagine what it means to develop holiday traditions that offer a sense of purpose and truly embody acts of love. Now that’s something to write home about.