Over 75 years ago, Mary Levenick photo-chopped her first family Christmas card collage. Inspired by the traditional German Advent calendar with tiny windows opening to surprise images, Mary adapted a colorful calendar, cutting away a portion of the scene to reveal a photograph of the Levenick family, parents Mary and Maynard “Lev” with son Maynard, Jr. and daughter Marylani.
The Levenicks were stationed in post-World War II Germany where Lev helped keep funds flowing in the Finance Corps and Mary explored Heidelberg with her friend Beatrice Patton, wife of General George S. Patton. A local photo processing shop set up a copy stand to photograph Mary’s original and used the negative to make multiple prints she could send to friends and family.
Born in Austria-Hungary before World War I, Mary immigrated to Chicago with her parents in 1916 but never lost her love of European culture, especially German Christmas traditions. Mary’s personalized Weinachts Adventskalender became her trademark card, and friends took note if the card was late or had gone missing in the mail.
Mary was always a great correspondent, and eventually the wonders of the mimeograph machine made it possible to send a holiday letter to the growing Christmas card list. She never tried to sugar-coat family life, and was great storyteller in short vignettes.
When the family returned stateside to their home in Arlington, Virginia, the advent holiday card continued. Handwritten notes explained Lev’s absence, “Lev is in Korea,” and the arrival of the youngest son “This year we are five.”
From new quarters in Japan, from the Presidio in San Francisco, and finally from their retirement home in Southern California, Mary snipped photos, trimmed the calendar, and created a new card each year. Some cards show individual faces peeking out of the calendar windows. Other cards feature a group shot of the entire family as part of the Christmas scene, or different photos strategically placed throughout the design.
As the Levenick’s address list grew longer, so did the number of holiday cards they received. Mary displayed the cards in a shoebox covered with Christmas paper and spent many late nights writing return letters to old friends.
Millennials Keep Greeting Cards Alive
Amercans in the digital age are sending a lot less mail through the postal service each year. Nearly 58,000 first-class stamped envelopes were sent in 2018, compared to 103,500 letters sent in 2000 (USPS Data).
One kind of mail is still going strong, however. The luxury greeting card industry with cards from Papyrus, Etsy and small letterpress companies has found a market with millennials looking to connect with people at an analog level, according to The Atlantic. Personalized photo cards remain popular, especially during the holidays.
The holiday mail our family receives has changed over the years from mostly printed holiday-theme cards to nearly all custom photo cards of family and friends. But no one has yet tried to replicate Mary Levenick’s family advent calendar.
Creating a Christmas Card Timeline
In clearing out the family home, we saved many of my mother-in-law’s Christmas cards and letters. Eventually we discovered the Mother Lode of original photo collages carefully “archived” in Army-issue brown manila envelopes and packed away in cupboards and drawers.
Now that we are living in the Levenick’s family home, I’m building a timeline to identify Mary’s 1959 Christmas card. It would have been the family’s first Christmas in their new Pasadena home. None of the originals are dated, but the family photos, clothes, hairstyles, setting, and marginal notes are helping to establish an annual parade of photographs.
The earliest cards show the Colonel (not yet at that rank) with Mary and two youngsters. Next, a new baby. Adults don’t change much from year to year, but children grow fast and teenagers’ hairstyles and clothes change often. I’m using whatever clues I can find to help date the photos.
A Workflow for Scanning Old Christmas Cards
We cleared away the turkey and trimmings after Thanksgiving and covered the table with a clean tablecloth to set up the advent calendars in a rough timeline.
Some pictures will take time to study, so rather than leave them out where they might be damaged by handling, light, food or drink, I am scanning each card starting with the suspected oldest in the 1940s to the most recent in the late 1990s. Digital images will help preserve the originals and make it easier to compare photos within the collection.
Here’s my workflow:
- Each original calendar is placed inside a paper folder made from a sheet of 11 x 17-inch acid-free paper folded in half. The paper cover makes a good place for notes and protects the old calendar from wayward fingerprints and dust until I have time to scan the original.
- Calendars are scanned on my Epson V500 Perfection Flatbed Scanner. My scanner set up is fairly basic: color, no corrections or restoration, 600 dpi, TIFF format. At this stage, I am using auto-numbering: lev-cmas-card-01. I am careful to clean the flatbed glass between scans with my Rocket Air Blaster to blow off any drifting glitter or dust.
- Using a No. 2 pencil the filename is lightly written on the back corner of the original calendar.
- After scanning, the original calendar is placed in an archival acid-free poly photo page and added to the ring binder of other pages. An acid-free sticker with the filename is added to the edge binding.
Following Clues to Date Old Photos
Digital images are a good way to study several calendar images at the same time to work out the timeline and dates.
I’ve already discovered several new clues in old albums and loose snapshots:
- A wooden box with old black-and-white prints included a snapshot of the family in front of the fireplace in the Pasadena house. The Christmas decorations on the mantle show that it’s obviously a family photo shoot for the annual holiday card, and the edge of the photo helpfully notes the year “1962.” The undated advent calendar collage with the same photograph now has evidence of the date.
- Sometimes cards and letters are Returned to Sender. The postmark helps date the card and letter inside.
- Photo albums include pictures from the same roll of film or taken on the same occasion as photographs used on the Christmas card. Printed dates or other clues in captions help date the images.
A project like this will change as new cards and new information are discovered. Using digital images with sequential filenames keeps the process simple and less complicated. There’s no need to frequently revise and resort the entire filename. Dates can easily be appended to the end of the filename, if desired, without altering the workflow: lev-cmas-card-01-1964. Probable dates can be identified with a qualifier such as: lev-cmas-card-01-p1964 (probably 1964) or lev-cmas-card-01-c1964 (about 1964).
This holiday project is a good size for the busy season and will be fun to share with the entire family. My goal is to assemble Mary’s cards and letters in chronological order and use the digital images to create a photo book of Christmas Memories. It’s something I think Mary and Lev’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will truly enjoy. And maybe inspire their own family holiday card tradition.
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Susan Anderson says
Your collection makes me wonder if the Pasadena Museum of History might want to exhibit your collection someday. I volunteer in the Archives there. You should come by the Archives someday next year. During the holidays, the Fenyes Mansion on the grounds of the museum exhibits Victorian holiday decorations.
Denise May Levenick says
What a great idea! I love the Museum and Archives and know it would be very meaningful to participate in an event there. It’s a wonderful resource for our community. Hope to meet you there in person someday.
Diana Elder says
I love everything about this article – the creativity of your mother-in-law as well as the beautiful way you are creating a keepsake for your children.
Have a wonderful Christmas!
Denise May Levenick says
You are so right, I can’t wait to finish this project and share it with the family! Thanks for stopping by. Happy Christmas to you and yours.
Gloria Pflager says
What a wonderful find for you! Enjoyed reading your story. Where do you find safe (archival) papers, envelopes, containers, pens? at reasonable prices. As I am going through everything, I see the damage done by tape etc. and am wondering if there is a safe alternative going forward. thanks for your time.
Denise May Levenick says
Hi Gloria, thanks for your kind words. My go-to supplier for archival containers is Gaylord, links on my Shop Page. I found that most companies require ordering a minimum quantity, so I often buy as needed using my Amazon Prime account with free shipping.
Susan LeBlanc says
The cookie tins are great for holding ornaments and other things. My ornament collection is full of memories. This is a post is full of wonderful ideas for preserving those keepsakes. Now off to unpack the ornaments and decorate the tree. Later I will tackle my card collection.
We would love to see a sample of your Mother’s cards!
Instead of a lengthy letter, our DIL has her photo card printed then has each family member lists the 5 best things about their year. (Trip to Italy, starting art lessons, winning so & so award, etc.) It makes a wonderful diary of their year & I have saved all 30 of them.
Great post! It brought back some very special memories. I’m spending today un-wrapping our Christmas ornaments – many of them purchased at German Christmas markets when we were stationed there. We also have several beautiful tin boxes that once held delicious cookies but now protect those precious ornaments.
Hope you and your family have a joyous Christmas.
Denise May Levenick says
The Christmas markets are among my favorite travel memories. Lucky you to decorate your tree with such special ornaments. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Denise.