Making of a Christmas Card, 2021

It took me a little while to come up with an idea for the card this year. I did take a second look at some of the Christmas light photos I shot in 2016 for the card that year; as it turns out, the same pictures I decided not to work with then, still didn’t speak to me now.

There is also a part of me that is getting tired of creating a new card each year; at some point the card will be a photo of all the prior year’s cards in a basket, and that will probably be the last one. I’m not quite at that point yet, though.

Mum and I got our COVID booster shots at Walgreens a few Saturdays ago; when you get a vaccine dose, you have to stick around for 15 minutes just in case you have an allergic reaction so that they can respond to it. So we fumfed around the seasonal aisle there, and they had a gingerbread house kit. I saw it, and went hmmmm.

Comes a week later, and I still hadn’t gotten any other ideas, so I decided to do it. So I went back to Walgreens and picked up a gingerbread house kit. I realized I needed something to act as a snow surface, so I went over to Michael’s to find some fake snow. I could not find any, and I couldn’t find a single staffer in the store who wasn’t running a register to help me. So I picked up a bag of white cotton, and some deer figurines and miniature trees.

Putting the kit together was pretty simple — the only surprising part was how long it took, because there were several points where you glue a couple of pieces together with icing, and then have to let it sit for 15 minutes while the icing set.

The photography was a problem. What I should have done was pick up a piece of white posterboard to act as a seamless background. What I did do was use the “desktop studio” I got a couple of years ago. It’s basically a 16″ x 16″ x 16″ lightbox, with a small pair of halogen lights to be positioned outside the studio, with red, black, white and blue backgrounds. The sides of the box are intended to diffuse the light to provide a nice soft illumination of the object inside.

Unfortunately, the studio was a little too small for the gingerbread house. It was hard to frame the picture so that the sides of the studio were not too visible. The backgrounds are not really seamless, since they came folded, and have a number of creases. I managed to get a couple of pictures, and then decided to try repositioning the lights outside the studio. While moving the right side light, the cord on the left side light got pulled, it fell off the table, and blew the bulb. So now, I had to live with one of the shots I already had.

None of them were particularly good; this one was the best of a bad lot:

Original picture, taken inside the desktop studio

It’s reasonably evenly lit, but the background is very visible, and the rightmost tree is crooked, and the cotton is pretty sparse in the left front. This turned out to be a fairly major Photoshop job.

First step was to do some basic color correction and lightening of the image.

Second step was to run a Gaussian blur against the background. I selected the area behind the scene, and run a strong blur against it.

Next, I used the stamp tool to even out the cotton “snow”

I’d created two different exposures of the photo when I ran the picture through Camera Raw; now I copied the left side roof from the darker version and combined it with the lighter version, where the roof was burned out.

Then I selected the rightmost tree, and rotated it a few degrees counter clockwise to straighten it out. I ended up using parts of the original layer underneath the working layer, but it ended up OK, even though I probably didn’t do it the right way.

The background was still too dark, so I masked the scene, and started lightening the background, to get it whiter.

Finally, I added some decorations and lights to the trees, then masked out a vignette area around the edges so that the photo would fade to white when printed on the card.

Then I brought it into Pages, using one of my prior year’s templates. When I printed it out, I found the background was still too dark. I ended up just making most of the background part of the scene transparent, so that when laid over a white background, it was white. In hindsight, I should have just extracted the scene from its background, and called it a day. I’m not thrilled with the little vestiges of the blurred background around the scene.

The next problem was what to put inside the card. The only card stock I could find at Staples when I went was half fold card stock, meaning the cards would be full size. I worked off my 2018 card, renamed the file, and changed the images inside. Unfortunately, I just haven’t done much interesting this year, so picking the pictures was hard. I ended up choosing half the pictures from our time on the Cape, and the last couple from a kayaking trip on the Charles.

Inside of the card

For the text, I decided to riff on the subject matter and wished people a Merry Christmas and a “Sweet” New Year.

Once again, I decided to include Mum on my cards. People we both knew got a card from both of us, and I basically let her decide what I would would write. She doesn’t have enough dexterity to sign them anymore. For the cards from me alone, I wrote more of a note. I had most of the cards finished and in the mail by the first week of December.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

The Christmas That Isn’t

It’s Christmastime… but it isn’t. Not with COVID it isn’t.

Normally we would have a big family get-together Christmas Eve. Not this year. Last year, we weren’t able to, with Mum in rehab for her strokes. I was really hoping at the beginning of the year that we could have our get-together again this year. Nope. We’re going to have to content ourselves with video calls this year. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it in 2021.

We’ve gone up to Rockport most years for the past several years, to shop the stores on Bearskin Neck, and see the decorations. Mum was very fond of the Christmas pageant, because it was a re-enactment of the Nativity. Even if we wanted to take the risk, it’s just not feasible this year.

I’ve gone Christmas shopping every year since I was in college. This year, I ordered a couple of things off Amazon, and that was it. (To be fair, most of this is due to the fact that none of the nephews and nieces are little anymore, and most of my siblings agreed long ago not to do packages.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a tree this year. I’m frankly not feeling it much this year, and I was concerned about laying out the living room — Mum now spends most of the day in her chair in the living room, and whatever I did, I would need to ensure that there was room for the chair and room for her to maneuver with the walker.

Most years, I like to make an occasion of putting up the tree, but not this year. I was also aware that I’d be doing most of the work of putting it up and taking it down. In the end, Mum wanted one, and I realized I did too, so I picked up a relatively narrow tree.

As it happened, there was a gash in the bark about 4 inches from the bottom. We had this a couple of years ago, and ended up with a tree that dried out pretty rapidly, so this year, I made a new cut above the gash, and cut off the lower branches. This had the benefit of making the tree smaller overall — both narrower, and shorter. I was able to use two fewer strings of lights. This meant I was able to skip the older LED lights I’ve been using for the past couple of years. My first set of LED lights were too blue for my taste; eventually, I found a couple of strings of warmer colored LED lights that I like much better. With only the warm LEDs and one string of mini-incandescent lights, this year’s tree is much more pleasing to me. And I was able to fit the angel on the top easily for the first time this year.

Christmas tree and Mum
Christmas tree and Mum

Even though it’s smaller, it’s still a pretty nice tree. And there’s still room for Mum next to it.

Making of a Christmas Card, 2019

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a Christmas card this year, with everything that’s going on. But at one point, Mum indicated she would like to join my card (she later changed her mind), so I started looking though my photo library to see if I had anything suitable. I knew that even more than most years, I did not have the spare time to devote a lot of time to cards. Fortunately, I was able to spend some time on them Thanksgiving weekend.

Continue reading

This Year’s Tree

2017 Christmas tree

2017 Christmas tree

I got this year’s Christmas tree relatively early. We were expecting rain and snow later in the week, and I figured most of the trees for sale this year had already been cut anyway. So one day in the first week of December, I went over to  the garden center to pick up a tree. I found this one, well shaped and thick, and brought it home, and set it in a pan of water out in the garage for a couple of days. The person at the garden center put a fresh cut on the end. Continue reading

Making of a Christmas Card, 2017

I’m not exactly sure where the idea for this year’s Christmas card came from. I started mulling it over in late November. Last year’s Snow Globe was easy and successful, but I wanted something more than just a picture of a Christmas decoration. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a scenic, but I couldn’t think of anything in my library that would suit. Finally, I remembered the tradition of leaving a snack out for Santa, and everything fell into place. Continue reading

Absent Friends

Christmas is a time to get together with friends and family, but it’s also a time to remember those who aren’t with us anymore.  My brother was showing some old videos from 19 years ago, and it was striking how many of those people aren’t with us anymore.

I miss my Dad. I miss his picking out the perfect Christmas tree, and how he’d play the piano downstairs. It’s been mostly silent since he died.

I miss Grandma. She always reminded me of Miss Marple, all white haired and fluffy, but always wanting to be part of things. Whenever she came for Christmas Eve, my uncle (from the other side of the family) would always flirt outrageously with her, and she’d lap it up.

I miss Fran, the neighbor from across the street. She had been a friend of my mother’s mother, then a friend of my mother’s, then a friend of the family. Opinionated, no-nonsense, but had a great sense of humor; we called her “Auntie” and she was, except for the DNA.

I miss Anne and Bob. Anne was the fun aunt of all my aunts, the one most likely to play with her nephews and nieces. It took a while for her husband Bob to grow on the family, but grow he did; he stuck by Anne by thick and thin.

I miss Dot. She was the widow of the uncle I never knew, and the mother of the cousin who died as a teenager. In spite of all that, she was fun to be around. She had a great sense of humor, and a funny, very plainspoken way of expressing herself. She seldom filtered herself, even when she probably should have. She was a great companion for my mother.

I miss my Aunt Sandy, my mother’s older sister. She too had a great sense of humor. She was very much a gourmet cook, with adventurous tastes, and my Dad and I used to joke about how she was going to be serving “Roast Platypus” for dinner sometime.

Then there are the friends, who are still with us, but literally absent for the evening: brother Tom, Kip and Joanna, Chrissie, and my two sisters, who I’ll be seeing next weekend.

Christmases are like a long running play; older members leave, and new members join the cast. My nephews and nieces are now young adults, as are my cousin’s kids. Over time, the play continues, but the cast evolves.

But here’s to absent friends.

 

Making of a Christmas Card, 2016

This year was a bit unusual in that I actually had two competing ideas for a card, and I was able to do them with a minimum of stress. The first idea was to get some pictures of Christmas lights at night, and I actually brought the tripod with me into work, and went out shooting afterwards at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I did get some good stuff there, but in the end, I decided to go with my second idea. Continue reading

The Perfect Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

2016 Christmas Tree

We just finished putting up the Christmas tree. It’s always a lot of work, and it’s always nice to bask in the glow of the lights when it’s done. This year’s tree isn’t perfect, but it is pretty nice.

I remember growing up, my Dad always picked out the family tree, and he had a well earned reputation for picking out a Perfect Tree. Our trees were always much nicer than the Charlie Brown trees my cousins had.

So when he died, my two brothers and I all felt strongly that we had to live up to his reputation, and none of us was willing to cede responsibility for getting the tree to the others. So off we went, the Three Wise Men — or is it the Three Stooges? on a bitterly cold December day to find The Perfect Tree. It took forever, because of course, there is no such thing, and even less so 36 years ago when shaped trees were less common. It took nearly an hour for the three of us to agree on one. It was a great tree though.

Nowadays, it’s just me. I still like to get a nicely shaped tree, but it’s easier now, because trees are more likely to be nicely shaped, and I have less enthusiasm for standing around a windswept tree lot trying to find The Perfect Tree. But every time, I always think of Dad.