In Troubling Times, Holiday Cards Send A Message Of Resistance
Those who spend their days in collective struggle for equality see the holidays as a time to send cards with a social-justice bent.
Before I had kids, I always intended to send holiday cards, but usually never got around to it. When my first baby was born, our extended family made it perfectly clear: A holiday card with a picture of the kid on it was now mandatory. That first year, 2014, we went all-in with a picture of the infant in an elf outfit.
But as the cold of fall set in, and it was time to make holiday cards the following year, I wasn’t able to reconcile the dissonance between how I was spending my days — worrying about and protesting the murders of Black people by police — and a blissfully joyous holiday card floating through the mail from our white, genderqueer, dyke family to our predominantly white, predominantly straight, extended family.
In the end, we decided to still send a joyous kid picture on a shiny holiday card. But, in contrast to that first year, we also included a personalized note about what our family was up to, which included a section about our concern with the unaccountable and widespread killings of Black people by police and vigilantes, our family’s participation in public protests, and a statement that it’s necessary for the whole country to advocate for the end of widespread racial injustice. Including a letter was one way to approach the conundrum I think of as “holiday cards in troubling times.”
In the year since the presidential election, increasing numbers of people in the U.S. are vocal about inequality and political repression. Now, many are grappling with how to connect with family and friends in ways that honor the intensity of this time, while also supporting the resistance efforts necessary to engender change.
I sent out a call and spoke to several people, including personal friends, who have answered this issue head-on — by using holiday cards as a tool of resistance.
Including a letter was one way to approach the conundrum I think of as ‘holiday cards in troubling times.’
After the election of Donald Trump, Jenn Mulhall said that she and her partner went through multiple drafts of their New Year’s Card before agreeing on “This year, may we find the strength to stand up for what’s right. May we share our strength with those who need it, and stand together.” That was tame, she says, compared to the many drafts before it.
Last year, we received a holiday card from our friend Eve Shapiro’s family that included a “Plan of Action” on the back, asking recipients what action they’d taken that week. She said she and her partner “felt compelled to highlight our commitment to resistance and to encourage the same from people we love — to not go about business as usual. It’s too easy to feel awful about everything that is happening, but to muddle through everyday life regardless, especially when you have the racial privilege of doing so.” They didn’t receive any negative responses from friends or family, though some relatives were silent about the card. Many friends expressed appreciation; “I do think people felt solidarity and in times like this, that feels super important as well,” Eve says.
The question of what to do about holiday cards in trying times might be felt by a much wider section of the American populace at this difficult political juncture — but it’s not a new phenomenon. My friend Carol Vitelli, a 62-year-old lesbian, has been sending politically themed holiday cards for more than a decade. In 2010 she and her wife Marge sent a holiday card with a picture of them kissing in front of the White House while holding a sign that said: “End the Harm of Religion-Based Bigotry and Prejudice.” She said this was speaking directly to the political moment, in which religious-based arguments were behind statewide propositions to ban same-sex marriages that were being voted on across the country.
For those who aren’t ready to design their own holiday card intervention, S & M Press, a small letterpress company based in San Francisco, has pre-made cards ready to go. Co-owners Shaun Osburn and Mike Vilayvong started making holiday cards in 2011. Shaun describes their cards’ overall tone as “sardonic and snarky”; options include a card with “resist” overlaid on top of snowflakes.
Businesses selling through Etsy.com, such as Turtle Goose Graphics and Fabulously Feminist, have holiday card options that incorporate Season’s Greetings with dissent against the 45th president. Turtle Goose Graphics offers a card featuring an image of Santa, Ms. Clause, and an elf holding protest signs that read “Peace! Love! Equality!” Fabulously Feminist’s Etsy offers a succinct Christmas wish: “All I want this Year is Trump Impeached.” For the gratitude-based organizer among us, they also offer a “Joy to the Resistance” holly wreath card. The Doodle Button Shop out of Austin, Texas, has a sale right now on their timely Christmas card, “Wishing you a Merry Mueller Christmas.”
To fully integrate activist work into the holiday card tradition, it’s also possible to send season’s greetings while funding resistance actions. Astrologer to the social-justice masses, Chani Nicholas, is selling a holiday card designed by her wife, Sonya Passi, that reads “Peace Love & Justice for All” on the front. Another card delivers a good laugh to those of us fighting misogyny and patriarchy:
All proceeds from the sales of these cards go to Passi’s organization, FreeFrom, which creates spaces for healing and economic justice for survivors of domestic violence.
Holiday cards embedded with political messaging are not always met warmly, of course; there are those who see them as antithetical to a sanitized notion of the holidays as a time for togetherness, not conflict. But for people who spend their days in collective struggle for equality, cards with a social-justice bent seem like the only viable option, incorporating the tradition of greetings and gratitude with deeply held values. As Osburn and Vilayvong put it, “We wanted to do something that resonated with us as queer punks and activists.”
When my wife and I made our first holiday card with a picture on it, I realized it might be the first time some of our extended families would actually put evidence of our queer family in their home-space. There was something profound about a queer-spawn baby being oohed and aahed over at the holiday party of a conservative evangelical Christian. In this context, the image of our family disrupts the heteronormative, homophobic status quo. And indeed, for some, the very existence of their family constitutes a holiday miracle. There will be families celebrating the holidays shortly after their mom was released from ICE detention or after their brother narrowly missed being sent to prison. There will be families for whom this will be the first holiday they celebrate under their own roof after a year of being unhoused. Their very joy and togetherness stand in opposition to racist state violence in the face of great danger and oppression.
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While many families might not celebrate their holidays amid acute crises such as incarceration or housing instability, culturally affirming celebrations may also feel like acts of resistance to the accumulating weight of oppression, including white supremacy. Lightsy Images, a family owned business in Atlanta, Georgia, makes a “line of greeting cards that TRULY represent Black people in all of our diversity.” Cards include “Black Girl Holiday Magic,” a stunning image of a ballerina dancing in front of a nutcracker and snowflakes, with a message inside that reads “From our home to yours may your Christmas be merry and full of Black Girl Magic! Happy Holidays!” The “Black Love at Christmas” card is an image of a richly drawn Christmas tree with a silhouette of two people leaning into each other affectionately. A card called “Holiday Hard Labor” shows a woman mixing batter while two children, deeply focused on the task at hand, roll out dough for Christmas cookies. These cards circulate images of Black joy, family, and community at a time when the media chooses to focus on photos of Black violence and criminality.
Based on the way each family is able to live under the troubling conditions of this time, there are different calculations about what a holiday card can or should communicate. The letter my family included in 2014 might have been the only time a conversation about racial justice made its way to the dining room table of some of my white conservative family members. This year, our card reads “Peace and Collective Resistance” and features three pictures of our family, including one image of us together at a protest in Black Lives Matter shirts. Our decision to include images of protest as representative of our family life, and to center collective resistance in the annual tradition of reaching out to family and friends, is not everything — it doesn’t do the tangible work of redistributing wealth from white families to Black families. It doesn’t free people from cages in prison. That work is ongoing in our daily life. But that work should, in our opinion, be visible to the people we care about. Pairing justice messaging with warm greetings acknowledges complexity — that we are working to find joy and community amidst long and complex struggles for justice.
Eve’s family is also white, and she said this year their holiday card is a picture of their child wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and holding a sign that says “fight racism.” I imagine there will be at least one family member standing at their mantle thinking, “The kid is so cute! But do I hang the ‘fight racism’ holiday card on the mantle?”
For our families, it’s worth a try in the hopes that the answer is “yes.”