Adding a personal touch to seasonal messages


This year, Michael Bereznoff's homemade holiday greeting to his immediate family and friends is an exultant linoleum print in purple, yellow, red and blue. The abstract landscape is a rendering of a rising sun, some loosely imagined trees and Michael's signature, wriggly human figures. The card is Bereznoff's way of welcoming the new year and making a resolution to himself that it be a productive one.

For Bereznoff, 36, a quiet man who best expresses himself in visual language, a homemade card is "really meaningful." His friends understand that the "truest way for me to be their friend is to give them a piece of my art to show them I care," he says.

Homemade holiday greetings may not constitute a large percentage of the 4 billion cards, letters and packages the United States Postal Service expects to deliver during this holiday season. (In late November and December, commercial cards appear to monopolize the mails: The Greeting Card Association estimates that 2.3 billion Christmas cards, 11 million Hanukkah cards and 10 million New Year's cards will be purchased this year.)

But coming as they do from the heart and not from the store, homemade cards, newsletters, family photos processed as cards, even computerized cards and holiday videos can speak volumes more than the most specialized, but nevertheless mass-marketed greeting cards.

Harold Dinkel, a cataloger at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University, and a Maryland Institute graduate, makes 100 to 150 cards annually to mark all kinds of milestones, as well as holidays. "They're fun to do and people like getting something personal. When I hear their comments, it makes me want to do them again," he says.

For the holiday season, Dinkel may begin to make cards as early as September. Using the same techniques as he does for his artwork, Dinkel draws from his huge picture file to create humorous collage cards, in which he juxtaposes unrelated symbols and pop culture icons.

The cards are custom-tailored to recipients' interests and pursuits. For one friend, there is a card that combines Pee-wee Herman, a team of flying reindeer and Sally Fields as the Flying Nun. Others may feature ice hockey, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson or the Fuji blimp.

Dinkel does not pay for any of his materials. "I use whatever is available," he says. He also makes a slide of every card, front and back, as an artistic reference point and a way not to repeat himself. Dinkel preserves his meticulous record in a thick loose-leaf notebook.

In their personal touch, family photographs processed as cards are close kin to the homemade kind. Interest in sending such photographic greetings -- an activity once dismissed by many as hopelessly corny -- has been rekindled.

Ellie Mueller, manager of Service Photo at the Rotunda, sees an increase in photo card orders this year. Other customers opt for the less expensive method of buying reprints, mounting them on their own stationary and adding a personal message.

In her cozy Roland Park home, made warm with vintage cookie tins, kids' paintings and antique cupboards, Ann Holland finds this year's family photo, taken at Thanksgiving. The group picture, featuring what is now an extended family including two grandchildren, will be processed as a Christmas card.

The last time the Hollands sent out a family portrait card was 1976, the year Marika, the youngest child, was born. But now that the Hollands have spawned a new generation, it is time to send a new family portrait. The card signifies "new life," Holland says. Holland, a speech pathologist, enjoys receiving photo cards too. "I save them over the years. It's so fun to see how kids have grown."

Holland ponders the urge to send photo cards and other permanent records of one's life. She remembers sending tapes as a child to her family as a substitute for costly visits, and she cites friends who recently sent a video wedding invitation. "It's not just a greeting," she says. "It's history."

Newsletters are an even more comprehensive way to preserve a family's history. Since her mother died in 1936, Rebecca Tansil -- with input from her sister Blanche, with whom she lives -- has done her best to send an annual newsletter to friends and relatives.

"To me, letter writing is really the history of our country," Tansil says. At one time, she sent as many as 500 to 600 newsletters a year. This year, she adds, "I don't want it to go over 400 -- I can't afford the postage."

At 90, Tansil, a former director of admissions at Towson State University and a breeder of champion white miniature poodles, is irrepressible. "I've just done a lot of things, don't you know," she says. Over the years, Tansil's contacts have learned of her international travels, poodle litters, prizes, knappings, traffic accidents, visits from relatives, and all the triumphs and tragedies that compose the fabric of her remarkable life.

In 1961, for example, Tansil wrote of the arrival of "oodles of poodles on Dunkirk Road -- 13 puppies to be exact!" Ten years later, she wrote of many things, including Blanche's trip to the University of Tennessee to "take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of our sorority, Sigma Kappa, where she was a charter member . . ."

Computer-generated cards are still another personalized way of saying "Seasons Greetings." Ian Feldberg is a computer scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University who makes his own ecumenical holiday cards, usually on a Macintosh computer. This year, he is trying to decide whether to feature a Christmas tree made of menorahs, or a menorah bedecked with Christmas trees.

"I think it's nicer than just buying [cards] and it's hard to find non-religious cards," says Feldberg, who likes to recognize the entire Judeo-Christian tradition in his holiday greetings. With color and laser printers, artists can create elaborate computer cards made from digitized art. Others, without extra effort, merely "look like you used a computer to make them," Feldberg says.

As a holiday greeting, videos may take the most effort, but can also pack a potent emotional punch. When Gerry Hanlon knew that his entire family was going to gather for Thanksgiving this year, he collected as many family photos, home movies and videos as he could find and took them to Professional Video Production in Lutherville to have them assembled as a family history. Hanlon, a copy writer who also has his own weekend jazz program on a Washington, D.C. radio station, selected music to accompany the video, which spans four generations.

"The holiday has a lot to do with it," Hanlon, 36, says. "It was a perfect opportunity [to present the video.] Not only had we been apart; some family members had kind of drifted apart in other ways," he adds. "It was a perfect way to try to get everybody all teary-eyed about each other and realize what we have. I realize not everybody's going to be around forever. It would be a lasting memento that keeps on giving and giving."

Hanlon gave a copy of the video to each member of his family.

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