Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Framing Your Family: The Rhetoric of the Holiday Card Photo


Image Credit: scrapcandydesigns

        Every year at this time, you have an opportunity to frame your identity through visual rhetoric: the holiday card photo.  Holiday card photos provide an opportunity to show off what one is proud of. They allow one to demonstrate originality or humor. They also make arguments about what constitutes a family.

        The standard holiday card shows a single photo of a family together, with the text conveying holiday wishes and letting you know whom you’re looking at:

Image Credit:

 For many, it’s a chance to show off how adorable one’s family is:

Image Credit: David Orr Photography

The photo often portrays the family getting into the holiday spirit together:

Image Credit:

Some cards get a little more visually complex, combining other images with the main photo. Here, it gives the family a chance to share a few more images from the same shoot:

Image Credit: A Frame Forward Photography

This couple combines their photo with a painted image:

Image Credit: Perfect Postage

The rendering of the three wise men and the star shares the page with the modern photo of the couple, separated only by their names and the Christmas wish. Using this image allows the couple to suggest how close their lives are to the Bible. Other families use the multi-image holiday card to show off travel and experiences:

Image Credit:

The full-color images in the center show the children abroad and at home, so the viewer immediately gets the idea of what the card is about. The many sepia-toned outer images, which fade into the background at first, reward the person who looks further with a greater range of experiences. Whether the image is multiple or single, the holiday card is a great chance to display what you’re proud of about your family.

             The card also gives people occasion to show creativity or humor, since the holiday card itself is such a cliché. Some directly mock the idea of demonstrating family closeness through a holiday photo:

Image Credit:

 The image has the stereotypical family posed in a Christmas-y setting. This family, however, does not pretend to be idyllic. Showing everyone bent over their phones makes the photo perhaps a more realistic portrayal of family than the shining moments captured in professional photo shoots for standard holiday cards. Yet the family is still displaying what it’s proud of – the ironic humor and honesty shown in the photo. Some show off their senses of humor in a more cutesy fashion:

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Within the fiction (spoiler alert) of Santa’s existence, the family mildly suggests that they have a certain rebelliousness. They defy the standard holiday card, but they still want to show you a cute picture of their family all together wearing nice matching clothes.

            Since a holiday card picture traditionally shows a family, every holiday card image also makes the argument that what it shows constitutes a family. As a pet lover, I enjoy the images where people pose with their dogs or cats as other people do with their kids:

Image Credit:

 Mom, Dad, Rover, Fido: a family. This type of argument, however, can also be turned to more serious purposes. Last holiday season, a GLAAD campaign sent holiday card photos of gay couples to the governors of states in which gay marriage was not yet legal. They used a holiday card photo image to advertise the campaign:

Image Credit: GLAAD

Cute smiling kids, holiday wishes, family name, date, white text on red, snowflakes – this image has all the elements of the standard holiday card. It’s a family holiday card, so this must be a family. Cooper Smith Koch, one of the two dads pictured, told GLAAD that he wanted Rick Perry to “see the love that we have for our children and how it's the same as the love he has for his.” Here, the holiday card makes the argument that if it looks like a family, it is a family, regardless of the details.

            As you make your holiday cards this season, remember visual rhetoric! What argument do you want your card to make about your family?

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