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How Vacation Playing cards Assist Us Cope With a Not-So-Merry 12 months, In keeping with a Professor of Comedy

By Matthew McMahan, Emerson College

The first Christmas card was perhaps predictably in a good mood. The concept is commonly attributed to Sir Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

To save himself the stress of replying to the all too many Christmas letters he had received from friends, in 1843 Cole commissioned an artist to make 1,000 engraved Christmas cards. With a wealthy family toasting the holidays, the picture was flanked on either side by pictures of kind souls engaging in charity. A caption at the bottom read: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”

family's first Christmas card in a lavish celebration flanked by people doing charitable acts

Sir Henry Coles Christmas Card.


But given the end of a bloody year of global pandemic, tremendous economic suffering, and a toxic election season, a classic and macabre Charles Addams cartoon in 2020 might feel more appropriate. The Addams family peer out a bay window to see snow fall as they decorate neighbors, deliver gifts, and build snowmen. Gomez Addams sighs tearfully: “All of a sudden I have a terrible urge to be happy.”

The comic captures the repressive side of the phrase “Merry Christmas”: the urge to be hopeful over the holidays, even if it doesn’t feel right.

I am a theater historian focused on the history of comedy. I am particularly interested in comedy as a means of communication and how it conveys information in a unique way.

Lately, I’ve been curious to see how recent Christmas cards have handled the tensions of the year – and how greeting cards have handled the holidays in other eras of struggle. A cursory review shows that other troubled times have shown a similar instinct to recognize the incongruity of quarrel with the time of joy.

Macabre with the happy

In the book American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Pictures and Context, author Daniel Gifford writes: “Since holidays are socially constructed, a certain quorum of rituals, meanings, symbols, etc. is shared among the participants in order to give the Form of vacation and so that the participants understand their meaning. ”

Over time, these rituals have often taken the form of signs of amusement, such as blessed angels or jolly Saint Nicks dressed in velvet. They are often enclosed in floral designs, holly bushes, firs, pines and wreaths. They testify to families of saccharin dressed alike and clinging to each other with an almost enviable and sometimes believable warmth.

People pulling up Santa Claus on the stock exchange during the Great Depression

Pulling Santa Claus out of the Great Depression.

Courtesy Lizzie Bramlet, CC BY

The cards are usually full of sentimentality and the images tend to be clichéd. The combination of these two – the sentimental and the cliché – provides the perfect opportunity to crack a joke. There is a tendency in many comic Christmas cards to bring up the circumstances of the day and the manner in which the facts disrupt the usual cosiness of the season.

The side effect is that these joke cards preserve the story in a playful way. Although the main goal of a joke or gag is to entertain because they’re supposed to evoke an emotional response – a laugh, a smile, or even a moan – they also capture what the joker and audience think about the holiday.

The timely Christmas card thus combines the typical – vacation pictures – with the current ones – what is going on at that particular time. The global economic crisis is a prime example.

A card with four stick figures rummaging through bills that say Merry Christmas.

A 1933 Christmas card from a family during the Depression.

Department of Labor and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, CC BY

Words written by a family on a Christmas card.  in 1933

A 1933 Christmas card from a family during the Depression.

Department of Labor and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution., CC BY

This homemade card of a financially troubled family draws the heart in a different way than Christmas cards usually do, but still captures the fun irony of the moment.

Cartoonist Herbert Block wasn’t afraid to address political injustice in his annual vacation drawings. In this 1938 cartoon in the Library of Congress, he asks if the Dies Committee – also known as The House Committee on Un-American Activities – would consider Santa Claus to be un-American.

In a political cartoon, Herb Block asks whether the Dies Committee would perceive Santa Claus as un-American.

A 1938 herb block cartoon, Copyright The Herb Block Foundation, CC BY

A fun end to a lousy year

In the spirit of Jon Stewart, the comedian and political commentator, we have all become ironists today and have a cutting perspective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram alike. These media fuel creativity and competition with the elusive promise of going viral – a term we should perhaps reconsider! – the smartest or most disrespectful gag.

This certainly happened before the pandemic, but the events of last year have allowed Americans to mock the usual holiday images by recognizing that this Christmas is not being merry, at least not in the usual way.

The best Christmas card for 2020, courtesy of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law pic.twitter.com/4S72fZjnSJ
– Susan Rinkunas @ ♀️ (@sueonthetown) December 9, 2020

One of my favorites is a card for 2020 that adds a sardonic touch to the cozy familiarity of Charles Schultz’s peanuts.

There are other great ones where the smart ones hit the current vibe. Take one that deals with the Nation’s Toilet Run by Dottie & Caro.

Making fun of the way the nation goes on toilet paper.

Card by Dottie & Caro.

And check out this one from Saucy Avocado that plays the night before the magic of Christmas.

A variant of the funny St. Nick.

A Saucy Avacado Christmas card.

While many families around the world are certainly going through a period of great turmoil and loneliness, that doesn’t mean that holiday greetings have to bypass the sad ones. Rather, a touch of disrespect allows these cards to mark the fears and worries of now with the spirit of a different and still meaningful kind of amusement.

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Matthew McMahan, Associate Director, Comedic Arts, Emerson College

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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