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The Annual Christmas Slideshow

I’ve made a few references to the digital Christmas slideshow I assemble each year, but I can’t seem to find one single blog entry that details the process so here’s a brief rundown of how the tradition started, how it has progressed, and where it stands today.

As far as I can remember there wasn’t any one specific thing that sparked the idea of the Christmas slideshow. Instead, I think it was a combination of three or four things. In the late 90s we began seeing the proliferation of those digital photo frames, so that technology probably sparked the idea. Around that same time (the late 90s) I got a laptop that happened to have a composite TV-out connection. This was long before televisions came standard with a VGA connection. That was also around the time I began amassing digital pictures. I had a flatbed scanner and a digital camera — nothing like the quality we take for granted today — but we had started converting all of our old photos into digital files and had just begun taking pictures digitally, so there was that. So somewhere between those digital picture frames, having a computer that would connect to a television, and scanning in all those old photographs, the idea of the Christmas slideshow came about.

In 2000, my Dad bought our nieces and nephew a basketball game for Christmas. In this picture you can see them playing on it. In the background, you can also see an old picture of me being displayed on the television. That was, I believe, the first year I did the slideshow. To put this picture in perspective, Dylan, the little boy on the right in the red jacket, is currently in college.

The goal of the slideshow is not to force people to sit down and watch it; it’s to have something on in the background that people can watch if they want. Some of our guests make it a point to sit in front of the television the entire evening and watch the show. Others catch pictures here and there as they make their way through the house. The show has no real beginning or end.

I’ve used LviewPro to display the pictures since day one. The version of LviewPro I use (1.D2/32) is very old. It has a copyright notice of 1993-1996 and is compatible with Windows 3.1, Windows NT 3.5, and Windows 95. Despite being 20 years old there are a few things it still does really well and really fast, like processing pictures in batches. It’s also great for quickly setting up slideshows. With three or four mouse clicks I can display an entire directory’s worth of photos in random order. Perfect for the slideshow.

The early days of the slideshow involved moving pictures to the laptop that connected to the television. That laptop predates USB and wireless networking, but I don’t remember moving them over via floppy, so I must have used an ethernet cable to connect the laptop to my network and then copied the files over before disconnecting it again and relocating the laptop to the living room. A couple of years after that I was ableo to copy the pictures over wirelessly. These days, I leave the pictures on my server and stream them across the network.

The pictures included vary from year to year. In the early years I didn’t have enough Christmas-specific pictures for a whole slideshow and so I simply threw tony of old photos. By the mid-2000s I had enough pictures where I could limit it to pictures from previous Christmases. These days I try to include all my previous holiday photos, plus pictures taken during out adventures throughout the year. I’ll include all the picture from that year’s Easter and Halloween, for example.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned over the years. The first is, I display my pictures longer than most websites recommend. For wedding slideshows, you’ll find most people tend to recommend displaying each picture for 5 seconds. What I found for my slideshows is that people will see a picture and then yell, “Oh my gosh, look at that!” At five seconds per photo, the image is always gone before the other person can look at (or sometimes, get to) the television. Also, most of my photos spawn memories and stories, so I like the pictures to stay up there a little bit longer so that people can comment on them or point out other people in the picture. I have experimented with times of 10 to 15 seconds in length. Ten seconds is sometimes still too fast if someone is trying to show someone else a photo or explain something, but fifteen seems too long if you are sitting in front of the slideshow waiting for the next picture to arrive.

I include way more pictures than anyone will ever see. At ten seconds per photo that’s six photos per minute, which works out to 720 photos for a two hour party. The pool of photos I used this year contained more than 3,500 pictures. The display order truly is random; in the end I have no idea what picture will display, or when. In that sense, the slideshow is as much of a surprise to me as it is to everyone else.

I have learned that people want to see pictures of themselves first, people they know second, and everything else is a distant third. You may have been really proud of the tinsel job you did on the tree a few years ago, but that’s a picture that’ll send ’em out of the room to refill their eggnog. People like to see pictures of themselves and children when they were younger. People like to see kids opening specific Christmas gifts they remember. Hit them with too many pictures of food, or Christmas lights, or wrapped gifts under the tree, and you’ll lose ’em.

Example of a bad picture. It’s food. Nobody cares.

Example of a good picture.

My intention is never to embarrass anyone with my pictures. If I find a particularly unflattering photo in the deck I’ll pull it. (Nobody wants to see a picture of themselves from the rear as they were bending over to pick up a gift.) That being said, there are always comments of “I was so fat,” “I was so skinny,” and “I can’t believe I dated that guy.” The goal of my slideshow is for everyone to enjoy it, so if I find pictures where I happened to catch someone from an unflattering angle, I’ll remove it.

While the slideshow runs I also play Christmas music. I give almost 0 thought into what music plays. In fact, most of the time I’ll fire up my mp3 player, point it to the Christmas directory, and let it play on random. This has backfired twice. The first time, much to my horror, I realized I had downloaded a bunch of x-adult Christmas albums (“Jingle Balls?”). I was able to quickly mute the stereo before anyone caught on. The other time, the mp3 player randomly picked the audio version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and began playing that. After about ten minutes of not hearing music I realized what had happened and simply skipped the track. Other than those two events, the music has gone off without a hitch — and, to be perfectly honest, the songs could be coming from digital cable or the radio or a CD for all I care. With music the slideshow seems more like a show; without it, it seems more like a Powerpoint presentation.

I have experimented with other ways of displaying the photos. Technically, I don’t even need a computer in order to show the slideshow these days. All of my televisions allow you to display photos from attached USB sticks, for example. And, all of my televisions have digital boxes attached (Boxee or WD Live) that have photo apps built in. The point isn’t the technology behind the slideshow.

On my hard drive I keep two folders: “Slideshow (Xmas)” and “Slideshow (YEAR)”. The first contains the pictures I include every year, like all the previous Christmas photos. The other folder contains pictures we took throughout the year on vacation. I combine those two into a third temporary folder, which is what I use for the slideshow. A few days later I delete the third (temporary) folder, move any pictures from the yearly folder over into the main folder, and delete everything inside the yearly folder.

One year, nothing worked. I couldn’t get the pictures to display and I was having network problems and so I didn’t do the slideshow. It was that year that everyone told me how much they looked forward to the show and how much they missed it. I’ve done it every year since. Some years I put more effort into it than others, but I’m always sure to have something up on display.

Do it right and you will have people gather around looking at old memories while making new ones.

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