The hand-drawn, olde-fashioned cards have greeted 50 straight Christmases. Bygone characters — Victorian skaters, Jazz Age dancers, three bears pulling a sleigh — star in black-and-white vignettes penned and inked with whimsy, revelry, and twinkling winking. They come wrapped in envelopes scripted with royal flair, an imaginary invitation to watch Charles Dickens play Tiny Tim and Scrooge at Downton Abbey.
These glad tidings were composed by Ken Raniere — penman, book illustrator, historic preservationist, cancer survivor, and my brother from another mother. This essay is my gift to him for 38 years of kindness, fun, and bravery. Come share a wassail toast to festive dinners and bountiful gardens, beautiful memorials and minor miracles, inside and outside holidays.
I can’t remember not being Ken’s pal. We bonded during our very first project for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pa., daily where I covered the arts and Ken designed multipart, meticulous graphics that won awards and helped revolutionize how newspapers looked. A mutual admiration society was launched by native metropolitan New Yorkers and Anglophiles devoted to civility, the ever-present past, and conspiratorial glee. Our tribe quickly included Ken’s longtime partner, Michael Schlecht, a skilled handyman and talented mensch. The Pennsylvanian fell for his future husband 42 years ago, during a Halloween costume party at a gay bar, which Ken dominated as a nun. (He electrified another party as a pope who lit up with Christmas bulbs whenever his ring was kissed.)
Ken made his first Christmas card in 1965 as an art student in the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, inspired by a penthouse view of the Statue of Liberty. He made his first serial Christmas card in 1972, inspired by the gift of a fancy pen from a teaching mentor. His holiday message was delivered by a pen-and-ink dove, a peaceful protester of the Vietnam War.
Peace remains a calling card of Ken’s series “Olde Christmas Delights.” He finds soothing, stimulating subjects in vintage magazine ads, photographs in antiques shops, classics literary (Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”) and musical (Tchaikovsky’s first symphony). Many times he repurposes his and Michael’s possessions. In 1986 he drew a gazebo, a sort of Victorian wedding cake, as a bandstand for serenading waltzing skaters. This year he drew an antique cylinder-record machine accompanying two dancers in elegant ’20s clothes welcoming 2023, the man’s shoulder supporting the woman’s ribboning wrap.
Ken’s timeless refrains appear on toothy, weighty paper with edges gently ragged, or deckled. Every picture is bordered by everything from a pine garland to a Gothic frieze. My favorite border contains 19 rollicking kids, a dozen in storybook costumes. They illustrate Ken’s belief that “nothing in the world is so irresistibly contagious as the laughter of children at Christmas.”
Ken’s cards are gentle works of art: precise yet unfussy, studied yet spontaneous. They urge arranging in albums and on walls. A framed version of his scene of youngsters sledding near Bethlehem Steel’s titanic blast furnaces hangs in my apartment in a former Bethlehem mansion designed for a Steel executive by the architect star of Ken’s coffee-table book.
These paper stages permit Ken to play a holy host of roles. The eternal child drew a teddy bear reading “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The nostalgic Italian portrayed his paternal grandmother holding a bowl stuffed with her struffoli, honeyed, fried dough balls that he began loving as an elementary schooler. The mischievous elf depicted his maternal grandmother making cookies even though she never made cookies, preferring to buy them from a neighborhood bakery in Manhattan. The romantic time traveler imagines racing a sleigh on a residential street closed for a Victorian winter carnival, a vision he enclosed in a snow globe.
Ken considers himself a guest from the 19th or 18th century, a “holdover from a prior life.” I consider him a resident alien from early-20th-century England, a staff artist, perhaps, at Downton Abbey. He certainly dressed the part for a photo of himself and Michael in natty English summer clothes featured in a Ken-designed calendar showcasing Lych Gate, their mountainside mini-estate. Their house, a ’20s bungalow transformed into an elegant Edwardian lodge, anchors a tiered wonderland of azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, boxwoods, tulips, and lilies. A perennial patch memorializes my hyacinth-loving mother, who adored Ken and Michael as much as they adored her. She called them “my boys”; they called her “Queen Pat.”
“My boys” treated my mom royally during their dinner parties on Dec. 26, the day British servants traditionally celebrated Christmas with their families, opening presents from their masters and mistresses. She zoomed back to her own Boxing Days in London while eating roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and trifle on the same florid pink-and-white English china collected by her best friend, a fellow Brit. Mom had a gas pulling apart, and popping, “crackers” stuffed with party favors. She became a giddy kid wearing a goofy paper crown.
Mom participated, indirectly and directly, in my craziest episodes at Lych Gate. One time I dropped off an out-of-town friend, asking Ken and Michael to entertain him while I reviewed a show I had forgotten I had to review. I knew they would have a ball with Greg, an interior designer and another one of Pat Gehman’s surrogate sons. Neither Ken nor Michael complained, even though I hadn’t bothered to warn them via phone or carrier pigeon (Ken kept pigeons as pets in a backyard aviary mansion).
The other episode is legendary. That day five of us emerged from lunch to see my car had disappeared. We walked in shock down Lych Gate’s steep driveway, crossed a narrow country road, and gawped at my emergency-brake-impaired Mazda GLC parked between two trees, impaled on a heap of stones topping a neighbor’s slaloming yard. Even more miraculously, nothing and no one had been injured. Ken, Michael, Mom, and my then-girlfriend Noel waved merrily as I drove my front-wheel-drive hatchback over the hump without a hitch.
Ken has kept Christmas well when pretty much everything else has gone to hell. Creating holiday cards has helped him cope with a brother’s heart transplant, the loss of his mother’s toe to diabetes complications, the deaths of his mom and two brothers, lost jobs, and financial crises. He’s paid to print upward of 200 cards, 130 of which he mailed, during years he and Michael couldn’t rub together two farthings, to coin one of my mother’s beloved Britishisms.
The unkindest cut was Ken’s throat cancer. After enduring a four-hour surgery, he suffered through seven weeks of radiation and chemo, a grueling process begun, appropriately enough, around Christmas 2007. He was under anesthesia when he dreamed up his 2008 holiday hero: a toy-cuddling Santa reclining on a crescent moon in a coal-black sky. “It’s my darkest card because I was in my darkest mood,” he explained. “I didn’t know if I would survive. I felt like Santa; I felt like the man in the moon.”
Yet “The Man in the Moon” is much more optimistic than pessimistic. As usual, Ken dispatches fear with cheer. Santa lounges around sparkling stars. In a poem a famous moon-jumping cow shouts “Jumpin’ Jehovah!” at moon-sitting St. Nick. Everyone is wished a holiday season “out of this World.”
Ken dispenses ink like black blood. He continues to make Christmas cards because they’re an outlet and a lifeline, for him and his friends. Many of us swear his greetings not only christen Christmas, they are Christmas. They help me slowly recover, 20 years later, from 10 years of reviewing 400-plus holiday CDs, an act of egotistical masochism that strangled my musical holiday spirit with tinsel. They summon my favorite childhood Christmases, especially the one when I opened everyone’s presents when everyone was asleep. I’ll never forget waking my parents to happily show off Mom’s iron as my own. They seemed as stunned as a kid discovering that Santa is really his dad in a fake beard and a fat suit.
Memories floated like snow-globe flakes during a Dec. 5 celebration of Ken’s yuletide blessings. Held the day of my sister’s 60th birthday, the 50th-anniversary exhibition/sale took place in a heritage center that is part of our heritage. Ken helped renovate and decorate the 18th-century stone house. He and Michael built an 18th-century-style kitchen garden with a fence and a gate. Knowing my mother was a savvy antiques picker, Ken recruited her to open and run a consignment shop. The store was a godsend that helped ease Mom’s adjustment to Pennsylvania after 40 years in New York.
The reception bubbled with surprises. Ken told me he still uses the pen he received 50 years ago from Jim Musselman, a teaching artist who became a big fan of my mother and me. I told Ken and Michael that I secretly moved the name cards at their 2000 Boxing Day dinner to prevent my mother and my partner Noel from sitting together and aggravating their pre-meal argument over me.
That night Ken revealed his plan to simplify his annual holiday gift. Next year his hand-drawn greeting will be printed on a postcard rather than luxurious paper. Card No. 51 will be the first not wrapped in a lovely envelope invitingly inscribed with his self-taught quasi-calligraphy. Antiquity and nobility will be sacrificed for energy and money.
“Olde Christmas Delights” will be a little less olde, a little less delightful. But Ken will still be the man with the toys. What he wrote about Kris Kringle could be written about him: “His sleigh is filled with everything to delight the soul of childhood and gratify the affection of age.”
Geoff Gehman is a former Wainscott resident, a journalist, and the author of “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons,” from SUNY Press. He lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and can be reached at [email protected].