Category Archives: Christmas cards

Christmas Card – 2019

For a university professor, there comes a feeling of freedom that is hard to explain after a college commencement. The stress of weeks of advising, calculating grades, assessing final exams, and fielding last-minute (and often questionable) excuses, yields to a few hours of everybody dressing in medieval robes and going through an ancient ceremony of finality and (hopefully) new beginnings. Commencement. And only one more faculty meeting standing between me and the short holiday break ahead.


My Christmas cards went out a few minutes earlier than usual this year. As a rule, I don’t want the cards postmarked any earlier than December 1. This year, I waited until later on November 30 to mail the cards from the main post office in downtown Birmingham; after they were put in the box, I saw that the last Saturday pick-up was 8:00 p.m.

It was approximately 7:45 when I noticed that.

I began to get text and email acknowledgements of my cards’ receipt on December 1 and, indeed, the postmark was November 30. Nobody but I would notice or care about that little trivia.

That annual Christmas card – usually with a photograph of an older Alabama church building – has become a year-long project which I have written about in the past. As soon as the cards go out around December 1, I start searching for another image to feature next year. That decision is usually made some time in January; the next few months are spent revisiting the image and thinking about messages when I have some free time and need a break.

The message changes over the course of the year, depending on what’s happening in the world. Some variation of “Peace” has been a constant since 9/11/2001.

In the first few years of the project, I usually stuck with a basic “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” type message. This year, the “Merry Christmas” was accompanied by “Peace | 2020 | Hope.” That means something to me, whether recipients get it or not. I feel like 2020 may be a watershed year for our world, not unlike 1968 was in my youth, and I look forward to it with both excitement and trepidation.

My Christmas card combines my interests in photography, history, ecclesiastical architecture, and architecture and nature in general. It is always a way to touch base with those I don’t always hear from during the year. The card “restores my soul.” I have written in the past about how each card I address (over 200 this year) becomes a “brief meditation” on that recipient.

My church this year is a 2018 photograph of St. Francis at the Point, a pretty white Anglican church in the charming village of Point Clear on Mobile Bay. It is just down the way from the Grand Hotel where I try to spend a few days each December between commencement and Christmas. On occasion, if my Point Clear trip coincides with a Sunday morning, I will attend an Advent service at St. Francis. On a sunny December morning, with sunlight streaming through the abundant clear glass windows, it is a perfect place for reflection, hope, and meditation. The building is actually a 21st Century structure, dedicated in 2001, but it captures the essence of a style of church architecture that inspires me to grab the camera. The little St. Francis at the Point Chapel, originally built in 1898, sits near the newer building; it adorned my card a few years ago.

My Christmas card is an act of celebration of the holidays and the season to come. It is looking forward to a freshly-pressed year hanging on the line and just almost, almost within our reach – with all of the potential that image represents.

Commencement.

Chapel – St. Francis at the Point

“… a brief meditation …” – Take 3

Church (c. 1871); Maplesville, Alabama; December 2016

 Here, again, is an updated version of an essay, “Why I Mail Christmas Cards,” from December 2014. Each year, I am asked about my Christmas card project so here’s another take:

My Christmas cards went in the mail on December 1. I started designing my own Christmas cards in 2004 and it has become something many of my correspondents seem to appreciate. And now expect.

I looked forward to receiving and looking at Christmas cards when I was a child and many of the people who sent cards to my parents every year were people I never met but felt I knew from the stories my mother would share about them each December when the card arrived. Genevieve O’Brien in Chicago, Christine Allen in Georgia, and Doris and Bill Fuller in Fort Worth are among the annual cards we received without fail from people I never met. When I was grown and out on my own, I would send Christmas cards as often as I could but sometimes work schedules or finances would make it prohibitive.

From a very young age I had set opinions about Christmas greetings and Christmas décor. For example, I am a Southerner and never quite understood why so many Southerners would buy into the Madison Avenue version of Christmas and send out pristine snow scenes and winter scenes depicting images that were not part of my reality of the season growing up in Alabama. I have traveled and worked all over the country and I have had white Christmases a few times. But the Christmases of most of my life have been bracing Alabama Christmases with a chill in the air and no snow. Actually, I’m not a fan of snow and have never once dreamed of a white Christmas.

When I decided to design my own Christmas cards I wanted to feature photographs that represented December in the South. I developed rules: 1) The photograph had to be taken during the month of December and 2) the photograph had to be taken somewhere in Alabama. Those are the only hard and fast rules but over time most of the photographs have been of old country churches I have discovered around the state. A couple of times the image has been landscapes around Mobile Bay where I try to spend some time each December. The project began shortly after 9/11 and every card since then has included the phrase “Peace on Earth.”

The only exception was in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t design the card that year; instead, I purchased museum holiday cards with a detail from a still life of a bountiful holiday table which somehow reminded me of good times on the Gulf and in New Orleans.

I developed rituals: I try to get my card to the printer around October 1 each year. I start signing and addressing the cards by November 1. On December 1, my cards are in the mail. Over time the mailing list has gotten quite large. Most of the people on my list don’t send cards anymore. For me, however, it’s a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances all over the world. Some of them are people I may never see again but I like to keep a connection. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and the Christmas card list is something that keeps me in touch and grounded.

Most people who know about or receive my Christmas cards are grateful and look forward to them each year. Someone might ask if I’ve picked next year’s image yet or they’ll send me a new mailing address to ensure that they won’t miss this year’s card.

But occasionally someone will grouse “I don’t know why you do it. Who has the time? It’s so expensive. And so much trouble.” Here’s my response: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I do it because it gives me pleasure. I look forward to it. I want to do it.

With each card I sign and with each address I write on an envelope, it’s a brief meditation on that recipient.

When I first moved to Huntsville, there was a lady, Grace Clark, who lived in my apartment complex. We didn’t see each other often, but whenever we did we’d have a very pleasant conversation. I added her to my Christmas card list. She never mentioned my cards but when I moved from that apartment to my house I kept sending Christmas cards to Mrs. Clark. A couple of years ago, when Christmas was past, I received a note from a woman I didn’t know. She was Mrs. Clark’s daughter telling me that her mother had recently passed away. She told me that when she was going through her mother’s papers, she found a stack of my Christmas cards. Mrs. Clark had saved each one over the years.

If you don’t have time to send Christmas cards, I totally understand. I’m busy too. I have no time for Facebook and Twitter. We each choose what we have time to do.

The 2017 image, by the way, is a church in Maplesville, Chilton County, Alabama, that was built around 1871, the year that Birmingham was founded. It sits serenely beside a railroad track, down the street from the town’s old train depot

I have realized that the frequent choice of little white country churches for the annual mailing almost makes it seem like I’m sending the same card every year. I’m toying with the idea of some changes for next year’s Christmas card. Stay tuned …

and Happy Holidays. 

More Brief Meditations

100_1587-3  My Christmas cards went in the mail this week. Previous essays have chronicled my long-standing project of photographing old Alabama churches during the month of December for my next year’s Christmas card. I have written about how signing and addressing each card has become a “brief meditation” on the recipient.

2016 was a challenging year for my family and me. Last year at this time Dad was already hospitalized and there was no opportunity to go on photography expeditions. But many of my friends have begun to expect my annual Christmas card and I feel a responsibility to complete the task. The process of choosing the annual design, verse, and photo has become a welcome annual ritual that I use as an escape from day to day pressures.

Since I didn’t take any church photographs in December 2015, I went back through my files to look at previous photographs of churches that I haven’t used. I kept returning to a 2007 image of Havana Methodist Church, an 1870 structure visible on Highway 69 in the small Black Belt community of Havana between Moundville and Greensboro.

The Havana church was a frequent subject of artist William Christenberry, whose long career was centered on photographs, paintings, sculptures, and assemblages inspired by the Black Belt, especially Hale County where Christenberry’s grandparents lived. Christenberry visited and photographed his humble architectural and landscape subjects year after year, photographing their decline and bringing fame to a green barn, a Sprott church, and a Palmist sign hanging upside down in the broken window of an abandoned store, among other iconic images. When I photographed the church in 2007 I visited the family plots of Christenberry’s ancestors buried in the small churchyard cemetery. 100_1589

Christenberry always photographed full images of the Havana church so I decided to use a detail of the church’s handsome roof as the main image on the front of my card and put a thumbnail of the full church on the back. The church’s elegant simplicity inspired me to use a verse from Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker dance song, as the inside message for the card. The “Simple Gifts” tune is probably best known from composer Aaron Copland’s orchestral adaptation of it for “Appalachian Spring,” the score he first composed for a Martha Graham dance.

On the back I provided the photograph credit and the note that the photograph was inspired by Christenberry along with a memorial statement for Dad, who passed away in the spring.

Ironically, as I was leaving the post office on the day that I mailed my large batch of cards, I heard the news that William Christenberry died at age 80 on November 28. That news about one of my favorite artists and fellow University of Alabama MFAs (who received his three decades before I received mine) made a bittersweet holiday season even more so.

Even bittersweet, I still look forward to a bright and pleasant holiday season full of comfort and joy and I still have a fervent hope for a better and more restful year to come.

Happy Holidays. 100_1587

“… a brief meditation …” – Take 3

Church (c. 1871); Maplesville, Alabama; December 2016

 Here, again, is an updated version of an essay, “Why I Mail Christmas Cards,” from December 2014. Each year, I am asked about my Christmas card project so here’s another take:

My Christmas cards went in the mail on December 1. I started designing my own Christmas cards in 2004 and it has become something many of my correspondents seem to appreciate. And now expect.

I looked forward to receiving and looking at Christmas cards when I was a child and many of the people who sent cards to my parents every year were people I never met but felt I knew from the stories my mother would share about them each December when the card arrived. Genevieve O’Brien in Chicago, Christine Allen in Georgia, and Doris and Bill Fuller in Fort Worth are among the annual cards we received without fail from people I never met. When I was grown and out on my own, I would send Christmas cards as often as I could but sometimes work schedules or finances would make it prohibitive.

From a very young age I had set opinions about Christmas greetings and Christmas décor. For example, I am a Southerner and never quite understood why so many Southerners would buy into the Madison Avenue version of Christmas and send out pristine snow scenes and winter scenes depicting images that were not part of my reality of the season growing up in Alabama. I have traveled and worked all over the country and I have had white Christmases a few times. But the Christmases of most of my life have been bracing Alabama Christmases with a chill in the air and no snow. Actually, I’m not a fan of snow and have never once dreamed of a white Christmas.

When I decided to design my own Christmas cards I wanted to feature photographs that represented December in the South. I developed rules: 1) The photograph had to be taken during the month of December and 2) the photograph had to be taken somewhere in Alabama. Those are the only hard and fast rules but over time most of the photographs have been of old country churches I have discovered around the state. A couple of times the image has been landscapes around Mobile Bay where I try to spend some time each December. The project began shortly after 9/11 and every card since then has included the phrase “Peace on Earth.”

The only exception was in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t design the card that year; instead, I purchased museum holiday cards with a detail from a still life of a bountiful holiday table which somehow reminded me of good times on the Gulf and in New Orleans.

I developed rituals: I try to get my card to the printer around October 1 each year. I start signing and addressing the cards by November 1. On December 1, my cards are in the mail. Over time the mailing list has gotten quite large. Most of the people on my list don’t send cards anymore. For me, however, it’s a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances all over the world. Some of them are people I may never see again but I like to keep a connection. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and the Christmas card list is something that keeps me in touch and grounded.

Most people who know about or receive my Christmas cards are grateful and look forward to them each year. Someone might ask if I’ve picked next year’s image yet or they’ll send me a new mailing address to ensure that they won’t miss this year’s card.

But occasionally someone will grouse “I don’t know why you do it. Who has the time? It’s so expensive. And so much trouble.” Here’s my response: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I do it because it gives me pleasure. I look forward to it. I want to do it.

With each card I sign and with each address I write on an envelope, it’s a brief meditation on that recipient.

When I first moved to Huntsville, there was a lady, Grace Clark, who lived in my apartment complex. We didn’t see each other often, but whenever we did we’d have a very pleasant conversation. I added her to my Christmas card list. She never mentioned my cards but when I moved from that apartment to my house I kept sending Christmas cards to Mrs. Clark. A couple of years ago, when Christmas was past, I received a note from a woman I didn’t know. She was Mrs. Clark’s daughter telling me that her mother had recently passed away. She told me that when she was going through her mother’s papers, she found a stack of my Christmas cards. Mrs. Clark had saved each one over the years.

If you don’t have time to send Christmas cards, I totally understand. I’m busy too. I have no time for Facebook and Twitter. We each choose what we have time to do.

The 2017 image, by the way, is a church in Maplesville, Chilton County, Alabama, that was built around 1871, the year that Birmingham was founded. It sits serenely beside a railroad track, down the street from the town’s old train depot

I have realized that the frequent choice of little white country churches for the annual mailing almost makes it seem like I’m sending the same card every year. I’m toying with the idea of some changes for next year’s Christmas card. Stay tuned …

and Happy Holidays.