The Ottawa Citizen
December 23, 1996
PMs' cards have politics written all over them
Yuletide cards from the nation's leaders usually focus on wholesome family look
by Mike Blanchfield
John and Olive Diefenbaker eventually settled for a simple photo for their official 1959 Christmas card. It depicted them at the front door of 24 Sussex, with the chief hanging the holiday wreath. But more than one idea was kicked around that year for the prime minister's official holiday greeting, including a photo on board the royal yacht Britannia with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie. Olive, whose love of Christmas extended to making her own decorations and holding children's parties, thought the photos could be put to more selective use.
"We are investigating some very good color pictures by Malak to see about the possibility of a few for people like the Queen, the Pres., the G.G.," she scrawled in a handwritten note to a prime minister's aide in November 1959.
Eventually, 8,000 copies of a card featuring the less extravagant photo of the "Prime Minister and Mrs. Diefenbaker" at their front door became the PM's official holiday greeting for 1959. No one seems to know what happened to the other one.
Since the 1950s, the prime ministerial Christmas card has become a yearly tradition that keeps on growing.
This Christmas, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's office will send out 60,000 personalized cards to MPs, foreign dignitaries, financial donors, riding association members, business leaders, assorted bureaucrats and anyone else who has managed to get on the mailing list.
Over the years, the sheer volume of personalized prime ministerial Christmas greetings has skyrocketed. But the purpose of the cards hasn't changed much in five decades, says John Evans, a retired photographer who spent 45 years shooting Ottawa's political movers and shakers for a variety of reasons, cards included.
They are still about one thing: "Votes."
"You got a Christmas card from the PM, you told all your friends. It was a good pipeline," Evans says.
Mary Macdonald worked as an executive assistant for Lester Pearson from the time he entered Parliament in 1948 through to his election as PM in 1963, before ending her career on the Hill with Pierre Trudeau in 1979. She makes no apologies for the personalized cards.
"This is what politics is all about," she says. "It's a democracy. It's our system. In politics, you seek the support of people and you have to take the initiative."
Archivists and researchers don't know for sure which prime minister was the first to send out mass mailings of his image on a Christmas card. It's not the sort of thing that inspires PhD theses.
Toronto memorabilia collector Morris Norman has about a dozen Christmas greetings from William Lyon Mackenzie King. His prized possession is a card from 1938, featuring a photo of King, hat in hand, in front of Laurier House in Sandy Hill in Ottawa.
The card came from a collection of personal papers Norman bought from writer Newton McTavish. It is unlikely, Norman says, that the card was part of a mass mailing.
Norman has one of the largest private collections of prime ministerial memorabilia in Canada. It includes 3,000 pieces, including cards, letters, statues, breakfast cereal and anything else with a PM's image on it.
From what Norman surmises, PMs didn't jump on the more personal Christmas-card bandwagon until after the Second World War.
It wasn't until the 1950s that the cost of postage became relatively cheap, printing techniques were modernized, and the importance of image in politics emerged, Norman says.
That transformed the cards from a personalized thank you into a mass-media politicking tool. In the following decades, even into the '80s of the Mulroney era, the PM's Christmas-card photo was often reproduced in newspapers.
As the relationship between politicians and the media changed over the years - as news photographers and cameramen stood ready to capture any visual gaffe or faux pas by a PM - the annual Christmas-card photo became the ultimate exercise in spin control. At least once a year, the prime minister got a shot at portraying himself in a wholesome family setting, sometimes with children or grandchildren, occasionally with a pet.
MPs got into the act too. Some imbue their photos with personal touches. Alberta Reform MP Deborah Grey posed this year in front a big red four-by-four sport utility vehicle. In 1990, Liberal MP Dennis Mills featured himself in a photo with 14 Soviet children, The picture was taken while Mills attended an environmental summit. The card reproduced the lyrics to the John Denver song, It's About Time: "there's a man who is my brother/ I just don't know his name/ But I know his home and family because I know we feel the same/ And it hurts me when he's hungry and when his children cry."
Preparation for these Christmas cards starts months in advance. And no one was more intimately involved in the behind-the-scenes planning than Olive Diefenbaker.
As documents from the Diefenbaker Canada Centre at the University of Saskatchewan show, the PM's staff kept in constant contact with Olive. They fussed over the appropriate type size. They mulled over somehow reducing Olive's stature in the photo with the Queen and the Eisenhowers "because of the angle of the shot she appears to be much taller than the other members of the party."
Perhaps that was the reason why the photo was scrapped.
In 1976, the last year they appeared together with their children in an official Christmas-card photo before their separation, the Trudeaus put things off until relatively late.
Citizen photographer Rod MacIvor recalls covering the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day ceremony at the War Memorial that year. He was working for the UPI wire service at the time.
Margaret Trudeau called over, "hey Rod, we need a Christmas-card photo, we're late." She asked him to come up to the PM's summer residence at Harrington Lake the next day. Margaret had met MacIvor a few years earlier when she asked him to teach her photography.
"Sacha, I think it was, was crying his head off," MacIvor recalls. "The best pictures were when he was bawling.
"But Pierre Trudeau said there was a bird in the tree, so they looked for the bird, and we got the picture."
This year's photo of the Chrétiens also features their four grandchildren. It was shot in late September at 24 Sussex, says Leslie Swartman, a Chrétien spokeswoman.
As far as content goes, Swartman says, "it's a personal decision by the prime minister and his wife."
Keeping the mailing list updated is an ongoing process that continues all year. The 60,000 cards mailed out this year will cost the Liberal party - not taxpayers - about $33,000 in postage and production, Swartman says.
While the cards go to the usual assortment of politicians, dignitaries and business leaders, she says, there is one way for the general public to get a card from Chrétien: Send him a card, and there's a good chance the PMO will add you to the mailing list.
There are those who get cards just for performing those intangible services for prime ministers over the years, such as Giuliano Boselli, 55, the owner of Mamma Teresa's restaurant on Metcalfe Street, a favorite haunt of Hill types.
Boselli has a collection of about 60 cards, from prime ministers including Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien, as well as a variety of cabinet ministers and senators.
"I don't know how I got on the list. I never ask," says Boselli, who emigrated from Italy with his parents, brother and sister when he was 23. "They don't invite me to the big dos. But I get Christmas cards."
If you are a recipient, don't count on selling your collection to a museum or a rich collector.
Norman, the Toronto PM memorabilia collector, says the Christmas photo cards are not worth a whole lot. Part of the reason, Norman says, is that Canadian prime ministerial memorabilia of any kind just doesn't fetch much money from collectors.
"In the States, they collect everything that has to do with presidents. There are museums dedicated to it. But here we're not (interested)."
For a complete list of the articles available on this site, see the Diefenbaker Web Text Files page.