Craft By Zen

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Christmas in October

Keeping Traditions

Before I started sending Christmas Cards, I didn’t get the point of sending cards. The only times I sent cards were if I found them funny or I was told to send one. In late 2011, my roommate Teagan asked if I could help her make a Christmas Card to send to her family and close friends. She wanted to show her parents the friends that she lived with. I accepted her task, which started the Christmas Card tradition.

Teagan grew up with them. She told me her parents got all six siblings and her together for one shot. She missed that tradition, being away from family for the four years she had been in college, and really wanted to participate in her family’s tradition. I didn’t grow up with them. My family had a one-way gift exchange, receiving a card from other family or friends.

Teagan and I decided to mock the generic format of the Christmas Card. The card had individual pictures of each roommate in the background followed by a center picture of everyone together. The generic heading, “Merry Christmas”, curved it’s way in on the bottom. I was glad our roommates participated in our absurd card, and I printed enough for each roommate to distribute 6 copies of the card. When I gave it to my family, there had a hoot. I remember they laughed so hard, and I wanted to cherish that moment. However, I was disappointed I didn’t have more to give.

Year 1 of Christmas Cards
Year 1 of Christmas Cards

The next year, I wanted to continue this gift. I decided this should be a running tradition. I created another card of just myself. On it, there are three panels. In the first panel, I dressed up like Santa Claus, the next panel, I was taking off the costume, and the third panel, I made a “ta-da” pose. Laughing at it for a minute, I thought this would be perfect. With the disappointment of having only 6 cards to distribute last year, I preemptively ordered a hundred copies. To my dismay, only 30 people replied, leaving me with 70 unusable Christmas Cards. But, I shouldn’t say it wasn’t worth it because those who were sent the card gave me their gratitude.

Year 2 of Christmas Cards
Year 2 of Christmas Cards

Instead of keeping to the same format year after year, the following year, I went all out. Recognizing I probably wouldn’t need to send too many out, I sent out invitations telling everyone I would send pictures of us together on the postcard. By making this simple change, my number of recipients grew by over two-fold. This time, everyone was elated when they received my card and saw their own face on it. I learned personalization is key to making a better Christmas Card with greater emotional weight.

Last year was quite wonderful. I changed it up again, creating hand-drawn card of something that reminded me of them. For one of my friends, I drew a rock climber because I knew that’s an activity she enjoyed. On another card was a petri dish because my friend worked in a lab at UCSF. However, I was worn out when I found out I had to create 140 of these cards. I had just graduated from Dev Bootcamp and wanted to keep in touch with everyone I had met.

Despite feeling worn out, this has been a high point each year. Being able to reach out to people I haven’t talked to in a year and making something meaningful for them. It’s a great feeling, and I wish everyone had the time to do this. I’ve changed my position about gift-giving, and I really want the people I know I am thinking about them.

The Idea

This holiday season, I want to do something new and fresh. Different ideas floated around my head, and I settled on an idea that I think will be really fun and therapeutic. I would like to give every a piece of a large art piece and type-written letters from an old typewriter.

I started water coloring this year, and think it would be really neat to do a few large canvases. I’ll take those canvases and cut them up in card sized squares. The idea is the gift recipient gets a part of a larger masterpiece. I stole the idea from Nerina Pallot who did this as prizes for supporting her new album.

Last year, I learned hand writing 140 letters may result in minor forearm muscle cramps. Instead of hand writing, I wanted some way of showing I wrote the letter with meaningful though. Enter a typewriter. I’m using an Olivetti Praxis 48, an electric typewriter from the late 1960’s. Some of the relic’s buttons don’t function. I’m looking at you, letter z, 2 and shift key! I’ve chosen to use plain dot matrix printer paper with the side perforations. These two items pair well as it shows a world we’ve left behind.

Olivetti Typewriter
Olivetti Typewriter

Now I know I could send this all digitally. But, there’s something about the physical medium that changes the perception of a gift. An email can whiz by you without a moment’s notice. A physical card is something you must take the time and look at. Instead of that 6 second email interaction, you may take up to a few minutes looking at my Christmas Card. Some websites have caught on to this, such as Reddit Gifts or Metafilter’s CD swap.

Some of you may be wondering why am I starting in October? To be honest, I’m lazy. The administrative tasks, such as asking everyone for their mailing address, filling out each envelope, putting the stamps on it, going to the post office, obtain postage for international letters, and physically mailing them, are boring. Plus, last year, I was late, so I’m hoping that proverb, “The early bird gets the worm,” actually works as implied.

The Value of a Gift

On my friend, Helin, recommendation, I read a book called “The Gift” a few months back. The book has this sector about monetary gifts versus gifts with no inherent price tag. A takeaway I learned was how I should continue this gift giving process without thought about receiving something back. There’s an implicit value that is reciprocated that may not take the form of a tangible gift, like writing a letter of recommendation when asked. The moment the gift has a price tag, the monetary value distracts from the emotional pull of a gift, and the gift recipient use the monetary value of the gift as an indication of the value of the relationship, e.g. a cheap gift means a poor relationship.

In addition to the benefits to the gift recipient, the cards have a major benefit to the gift giver. These Christmas cards are a gift for me to initiate a conversation to my contacts. It’s my lazy excuse to talk to someone I may have not reached out to for a year. It bugs me that people enter and exit your life, while the only thing keeping you from reaching out with a simple phone call, text, or email. I’m reminded of the poem by writer Charles Hanson Towne.

Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end;
Yet the days go by, and weeks rush on,
And before I know it a year is gone,
And I never see my old friend’s face,
For Life is a swift and terrible race.
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell,
And he rang mine. We were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men:
Tired with playing a foolish game,
Tired with trying to make a name.
“To-morrow,” I say, “I will call on Jim
“Just to show that I’m thinking of him.”
But to-morrow comes — and to-morrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.
Around the corner — yet miles away,…
“Here’s a telegram sir,…”
“Jim died today.”
And that’s what we get, and deserve in the end:
Around the corner, a vanished friend.
— Charles Hanson Towne

I never expected this ritual to occupy so much time. But I think of the benefits make it worthwhile, of catching up with old friends, of being able to go beyond normal gifts, of being creative. I absolutely love doing this, too much to the point this is what I think about on my free time.