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True sugar-plum confessions

The drama behind those cute family Christmas-card photos.

Barbara Stavetski
Barbara StavetskiRead more

As Christmas approaches, our mailbox fills up with shiny cards containing adorable pictures of people's children dressed in red and green holiday outfits. Each picture is perfectly composed and the children are all smiling widely as if Santa himself were behind the camera.

When I was growing up, my parents also sent out a yearly Christmas picture of me, and my brother and sister. It sounded so easy: Dress us up in nice clothes, snap a picture, and voila! - instant Christmas memory. But somehow it always ended up with us poking each other until one of us was crying, and my parents coming as close as they ever came to fighting, with my dad thinking the picture looked fine, and my mom saying through clenched teeth, "Larry's eyes were closed."

You'd think I'd have learned something from that, but no, the first year I had a child, not only did we decide to send out a picture, we tried to do something "special."

Our baby Derby looked like an angel, so we decided to turn her into one. We hung fluffy clouds on the blue wall and gave Derby a halo and gold horn. Then we propped her up to look as if she were flying, and draped her in more clouds. Well, Derby's personality didn't match her cherubic looks. She ripped off her halo, threw the horn out of her heavenly kingdom, and ate a big handful of cottony clouds. It took four rolls of film and two days to get our angel picture.

Undeterred, the next Christmas, we tried again, adorning Derby as "the little shepherd." We drove to the beach, stopping on the way to spend $60 on two ornamental lawn sheep. Derby wore a pillowcase, with a striped dish towel on her head, and carried a wooden crook. In the final shot, her mouth was wide open as though she were proclaiming the good news of the Lord, when actually she was howling at us to "take the stupid picture already."

With each addition to the family we raised the bar. The year our daughter Bailey was born, we attempted a bedtime shot, picturing slumbering children, floating candy canes and candles for ambience. We discovered that our children were nocturnal, that candy canes suspended with thread and Scotch tape will not stick to the ceiling, and that red wax is really hard to get out of a white carpet.

When Teddy was born, we were struck with inspiration. Our picture would read, "Glory to the Newborn King," but we could do a pun on king and dress 6-month-old Teddy as Elvis, with the girls as angels. Decked out in his sister's sequined white jumpsuit, Teddy did resemble a small, chubby Elvis. To complete the ensemble, we dyed his blonde hair black. Teddy was too young to stand on his wobbly little legs, and the weight of the guitar kept tipping him over. So after countless shots of Teddy pitching face-forward, we hung the guitar from the ceiling and tied Teddy to the guitar.

Then along came Timmy. That year, we settled on a scene from the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Two-year-old Teddy was elected to be the Grinch, and found himself stuffed into green tights with a green face. Derby, as the Grinch's dog, Max, had a stick shaped like an antler tied to her head. Bailey got the coveted role of Cindy Lou Who, and Timmy was an anonymous Who from Whoville.

We shot a roll of film and sent it out for one-hour developing. Unfortunately, there wasn't one usable picture in the bunch. So we forced the kids back into their costumes and tried again. Two hours later we still had nothing. The kids were losing interest in the whole affair. Teddy's face makeup was getting harder and harder to get off, and we were at the photo shop so often we decided to add the owner to our Christmas card list. After five rolls of film and over $100, we had a cute picture and one green-tinged child.

As the years go by, we lost momentum. We had run out of ideas, and the boys started objecting to anything that involved tights. So we started sending out a snapshot from our summer vacation. Of course, even those pictures came with their own sets of hurdles. That one of the kids in front of Old Faithful is a great picture, but we had to wait so long for Old Faithful to erupt that we wound up missing our flight home.