When my great-nieces came to visit last week, they brought along the American Girl dolls jolly St. Nick had left under their tree. I was amazed that the older child actually recognized the accessory “Willa” carried: a camera containing tiny “photographs.” Most of the photos this little Generation Z’er has seen in her seven-year lifespan are the kind that appear on screens and are saved in clouds.
Those same great-nieces showed up a few days later on my computer and Kindle screens in the traditional, if not obligatory, photos of Christmas 2018. In front of my sister’s yuletide-bedecked fireplace, there they were in a series of posed photos: with their parents, with their grandparents, with their Ohio uncle and aunt, with their North Carolina aunt and uncle. The resulting Facebook pictures are now being held in a digital file somewhere, to be accessed by any number of relatives and friends and perhaps even to pop up as a cherished memory a couple of years from now – if Facebook is still around.
I guess there have always been Christmas pictures. Stashed away in cardboard boxes in the attic or in photo albums destined to disintegrate because of acid-filled paper are similar photographs from my girlhood days. Clear in my mind’s eye are sets of black-and-white pictures bound at the drugstore, where my mother took the occasional roll of film for development, between glossy yellow or green covers. Enclosed in those mini-albums are photos of each set of children at annual Christmas get-togethers on both sides of our family. There we are, the Scott girls – when there were still just four of us – all lined up for the camera: at my Uncle Harlan’s house on my dad’s side and at the home of my mother’s sister, Alice. Also included are pictures of all my cousins, one family’s collection of offspring per photograph.
Despite the sixty-year difference in photographic technology and storage, the Christmas pictures from circa 1958 and those from 2018 are pretty much the same. They serve as measuring sticks of sorts – every bit as indicative of yearly progress as pencil marks on a door frame.
Today’s cameras, located in always-accessible phones and requiring no film or development, permit us to easily snap Christmas pictures showing exactly how much the little ones have grown in a single calendar year. The swaddled infant progresses to a wide-eyed, lap-bound baby, then to a toddler-on-the-go, until suddenly he has morphed into a teenager. Also on display, unfortunately, are the advancing gray hairs and wrinkles of older family members. Grandparents, parents, and children compare physical development and shake their heads in disbelief – for very different reasons.
Photographs provide another type of benchmark: the size of the brood. Often, as children march off into the world to make their own ways, families still manage to gather on an annual basis – and group photo opportunities abound. With the passage of time, however, the far-flung nature of modern geography tends to limit complete familial shindigs to alternate-year arrangements, or perhaps to once-in-a-blue-moon status. Such infrequent celebrations call out for major, all-inclusive, generational photographic proof of any entire clan meeting.
Thus, small group photos by the Christmas tree eventually become photographic quilts of the layers of a family. Families with a healthy batch of grands-and-greats know whereof I speak!
Although not a Christmas picture, an iconic photograph of my father’s family, a sepia-toned print my dad always carried in his billfold, shows my grandparents and their flock of children sometime in the mid 40’s. Those pictured range from Aunt Dorothy born in 1917 through two sisters and a whole bunch of brothers, all there with my Grandpa and Grandma Scott – who, by the way, helped baby Max stand for the picture. In contrast, I note the growth of the family through a series of photos taken on the day of my grandfather’s funeral in 1983: one picture each of every member of the original set of siblings along with his/her offspring – the routine measurement of a family.
Christmas pictures provide reminiscence for friends as well as families. I feel the years piling up when I click through Facebook frames posted by former colleagues. A lot of us started out together, way back before babies became a way of life. Incomprehensibly, their children have spawned children of their own, moving my fellow teachers into that new demographic category of grandparent.
There are other Christmas pictures, too, those of my former students. So many adolescents who passed through my classroom and gradebook now show up on my Facebook pages – with children of their own. Difficult to have envisioned but gratifying to see: the shy girl in the corner of the room as a mother or the class clown at the center of all attention as father to a brood of his own.
Sadly, there is another measurement to be discerned from the physical and digital albums of our lives: the faces of dear ones no longer with us. How we miss their cherished presence, when they experienced pure joy simply at being surrounded by their children and their children’s children and the children of those children.
The tradition of taking and sharing Christmas pictures will continue – of that I am sure. In whatever setting, against whatever background, such photos help us remember how we were and how far we have come – important measurements for any family.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.