The Cost Of Trying To Seem Perfect Via 5 Years Of Holiday Cards

by Shannon Oertle

December 2010

The first year, it started innocently enough. I remembered being a child and receiving holiday cards from friends and family. My extended family had the somewhat obnoxious habit of writing ‘holiday newsletters’, or as we liked to call them ‘brag rags’. You could say that holiday cards were the original Instagrams — designed to induce envy in a compact little box. My relatives often detailed their vacations to exotic places, marathons ran, and crafts or gardens produced.

The handful of times my family did holiday cards was by accident. I believe my mother said, “Hey, I have that cute picture of the kids from the summer, let’s make it into photo cards at Walgreen’s and send them out!” Meaning: there was little forethought.

I aspired to something slightly more. In 2010 we had a 9-month-old son, and had just returned from a failed stint in Seattle. But we didn’t show any of that in the card, instead I set out to show how much we loved Florida. We shot it on an old plaid blanket of my mother’s ($0) using a ladder so we could get a flat plane. My husband and I are lying flat, with our little baby boy beside us in fuzzy hat (baby gift from a friend) and plaid shirt ($15 on sale) and baby jeans ($10). We even had the dog in the picture. I used a striped shirt I already had for some fun pattern clashing.

We ordered post card style cards from Shutterfly (50 cards for $75.79) and got stamps at the post office ($31.54 for 3 books). The whole thing took around 20 minutes in the back yard with no tears.

Total Cost: $132.33

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December 2011

I decided we should do a ‘mini newsletter,’ choosing a postcard style card with a back detailing our adventures for the year. I even added my blog address to the card (which now makes me cringe). We spent a lot of time that year renovating our house and blogging about it, so naturally we took the photo in front of the house.

This is actually one of my favorite cards, black and white. It’s zoomed in on our toddler son with just the feet of his parents showing next to him. My mother took the photo. I wore tall brown boots, owned for 3 years by that point, a plaid skirt ($60 on sale) and cream sweater ($50). Pretty sure my husband wore the same combination as the year before — some kind of button down and khakis, all previously owned. The toddler wore a little sweater ($30) and jeans, and miniature leather chukka boots ($50).

This was also the year we shot first thing in the morning to beat the Florida heat, but we were sweating anyway within the hour from wearing our sweaters and boots. The cards I got from Minted using a voucher from Gilt ($50 for $100 worth of cards). Although I went over a little bit, and with taxes and shipping, had to pay an additional $30.45. And of course there were stamps ($31.54).

Total Cost: $301.99

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December 2012

By this point, I was six months pregnant with our second child, another boy, and holiday cards had become a tradition. The tradition necessitated that I manipulate every detail into looking picture perfect.

I painted an entire wall in our spare bedroom with chalkboard paint ($42.38 for two quarts) and then used a chalk marker ($6.85) to draw an elaborate mural on it of birch trees. It turned out awesome! I styled the entire shot: green leather chair, fuzzy Morroccan rug. My husband sat in the chair, holding our older son on his lap. We used a tripod with a remote.

I wore a new dress ($122.21) bought specifically for the shot that highlighted my growing belly. In a way the card was also our announcement to family that we were pregnant with the second kid. I got my hair blown out and styled for the photo ($60). My husband wore his traditional white button down and pants, but with a new wool blazer ($50 on sale) also purchased for the shot. You could say our shoots were getting more elaborate and more expensive.

This was also the year I chose square cards which necessitated more postage ($31.54 + $22.26). Cards were from Pinhole Press (50 for $89.50) and I got custom return address labels as well for $19.98. With shipping the cost came to $116.05.

Total Cost: $451.29

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December 2013

We had moved to Washington, D.C. and we wanted something that showcased that in the photo. So we traipsed to the monuments at 7:00 am to beat the tourists. It was freezing in November, although much to my disappointment it didn’t snow. We used a tripod in front of the Jefferson Memorial and probably took over an hour trying to get the best shot. The kids were going in opposite directions. The baby was now six months old and crawling (with a couple of close calls on the monument steps!) and our older son was 3.5 years old, running around trying to touch everything. The thing that saved us was putting the baby in a ring sling, a gift from my mother, so then there was only one kid to chase.

Truth be told, this was my entire parenting philosophy for two kids close in age for the first few years: always have one restrained.

The photo we used turned out beautifully. It’s black and white, and my husband and I are kissing with the baby in between us in the sling and the preschooler swinging from our arms below. It looks natural, but in reality it was forced: “Timer goes in 3, 2 … ok, quick, kiss!”

The kids melted down on the long walk back to the car, carrying the camera and any props and outfit changes, and we were all exhausted. I bought the baby moccasins that you didn’t even end up seeing in the photo for $31.00. I got a new dress ($50) and tights ($10.50) and a new vest for the preschooler ($50). Cards were $131.75 from Minted for 55 cards, and I got a few discounts for being a good customer, which brought the cost down to $103.35. I used regular stamps ($31.54) but ordered special return address stickers ($25.32) from Pinhole Press.

Total Cost: $301.71

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December 2014

We had two fully mobile kids, filled with energy, so I knew the tripod wasn’t going to cut it. I pushed my husband into paying for a photographer ($350), a cost I felt at the time was exorbitant but somehow necessary. This package got me one printed 8x10 photo unframed and 5 digital negatives. If you wanted more from the shoot you had to pay for extra packages. This meant new outfits for everyone so we could be color coordinated in shades of red and cream. A new top for me ($195) and a blowout ($50). New red corduroy pants for the younger son ($65). He is wearing the same sweater the older son wore three years before and ironically my husband is in the exact same clothes from that year as well.

On the way to the photo shoot, our younger son fell asleep in the stroller and had to be awoken to take pictures. He was in a terrible mood and crawled and screamed for most of the shots. The final image is all of us with fake smiles plastered to our faces, the toddler’s head at a direct 90-degree angle to everyone else’s. We fought the entire walk home.

Cards were from Pinhole Press (55 for $92.95), where I had a 25% off coupon, bringing them to $69.71 plus custom return address labels ($19.98). And of course stamps ($31.54).

Total Cost: a whopping $781.23 for a stressful 30 minutes

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Which brings us to 2015. Over the summer, my husband and I separated. The perfect family cracked. Our friends had no idea and were completely surprised when they found out. We left DC. Well, I left DC, and he eventually followed. We have since reconciled through LOTS of talking, breaking old patterns, and trying to create healthier ones. I stepped back from social media. I stepped back from trying to curate the images of my kids and instead let them be kids.

It’s November now. I recently turned to my (still) husband and asked, “Do you care if we don’t do holiday cards this year?”

“Not at all,” he replied.

Shannon Oertle is a freelance writer and mom of two rowdy boys in Orlando, Florida. She is a recovering social media perfectionist. Her writing can be seen at www.shannonoertle.com.

This story is part of our Holidays 2015 series.

House Lannister Holiday Card via Brandon Kish on Flickr