On Fake Smiles in Christmas Cards

Dena Landon

By Dena Landon | Dec 19th, 2017

I have a thing about pictures. I inherited it from my mother, along with the round Scandinavian face and cheekbones. Every year we’d dress up for family portraits, and when she died I inherited over twenty photo albums documenting her life. When I had my son I splurged on a major newborn package and, six months later, decided to use the same photographer for our Christmas photos. She was having a mini session at a nearby state park, so I signed us up for a ten minute block.

Two days before that Saturday I asked my ex-husband if we could do a trial run. “I’m a little worried that we won’t be able to find where we’re supposed to meet her,” I told him. The park had multiple entrances and parking lots and we’d never been there before. “It’ll be fine, I don’t want to waste the time,” he blew me off.

Saturday morning, driving around, late and lost, I mentioned how we probably should have done that trial run. Sure, I shouldn’t have gone with an “I told you so,” but show me the wife who isn’t at least tempted in that situation and I’ll show you a saint. I was worried that if we got there too late the photographer wouldn’t fit us in and my dream of beautiful family portraits would be ruined.

My ex didn’t respond well to my pointed comment. He slammed his hand against the dashboard, “Goddamnit, Dena, shut up!” In the backseat our son started crying.

Trained by a lifetime of abusive men, I drew in on myself, shrank back in the seat and, well, shut up.

When we arrived ten minutes late to the park I was shaking and upset. The photographer grimaced and barely hid her irritation. And I don’t blame her – we were the day’s first appointment and now her whole schedule had been thrown off. She managed to squeeze us in. I don’t know how I managed to fake a smile in the family shots, but I can see the difference in the pictures where it’s just me holding my son.


A month later I uploaded the photos onto Shutterfly and ordered Christmas cards. “Happy Holidays!” Look at our cheery, happy family in matching sweaters. A completely fake image.

How many of us have sent out holiday cards that showed the life we wanted, rather than the life we had? Or told people it’s just fine when, really, it’s anything but? It’s almost a form of wishful thinking.

Maybe if I make it look good, it’ll become good.

But wishful thinking doesn’t fix a bad – or in my case, abusive – marriage.

It’s been six years since I sent out those cards. Over three since my family cards included anyone other than me and my son. But when I sit down to address this year’s cards, to a group of friends that retains its core members but which has radically changed outside them, I’m at peace. I don’t feel ashamed of the truth I’m hiding behind those smiles. Vaguely guilty and aware that I’m telling a pictorial lie.


Divorce isn’t easy. The first post-divorce year my cards didn’t include photos, or a letter updating people on my wholly awful year. When other friend’s cards showed up I grimaced and resisted the urge to toss them in the trash. I’m still glad I decided to walk away from the life portrayed in cards and professional photographs.

Coming from a divorced home myself I’d desperately wanted an intact family. Clung to the idea of mom, dad, and kids all together around the tree. I thought that if I dragged my ex to marriage therapy enough times, if I praised the smallest, most basic kind act, if I tried reverse psychology and read books on successful marriages and worked at it until I fell over in exhaustion I could have that dream. The coordinating outfits and cards were just one piece of that vision. But if it’s not real, what is worth? Like a cubic zirconia instead of a real diamond ring the answer is – not much.

I bought many of my own gifts this year, which was better than having a husband decide it wasn’t worth his time to order anything. When my boyfriend of four and a half months tucked a few presents under the tree, too, I felt a little thrill that he’d thought of me. It doesn’t matter what’s inside the boxes, he thought of it and bought me something without being asked. Which is more real than a husband who grumbles and complains about “having” to think of his wife on the holiday.

Many divorced women before and after me have learned, as painful as divorce may be it’s always better than living a lie. Whether it’s your first Christmas on your own or your twentieth, whether you’re sending out pictures of a blended family or if it’s some other new reality, you can find joy in living your life honestly and authentically.

Dena Landon

Dena Landon

Dena Landon's bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Salon and more. The proud mom of a boy, she specializes in parenting and divorce.


©2011-2024 Worthy, Inc. All rights reserved.
Worthy, Inc. operates from 25 West 45th St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10036