The Last Word
Those chatty Christmas missives
"Things in the Wilson household have been hectic, what with..."
We've all gotten them, some of us have even written them: Christmas letters. Chatty missives bringing the reader up to date in the life of the correspondent. In the olden days they were typewritten and Xeroxed; now they come printed on festive holiday-inspired paper, even adorned with Photoshopped pictures of the correspondent's family. Let's face it, we can be a little churlish about receiving them. But think about it, sometimes the letter folded up inside the annual Season's Greetings card is the only communication you get from distant friends. You may even wonder why you're still on their list, as time and distance grows ever wider. Maybe Christmas letters are like being in someone's e-mail group. Once on, you never get off.
Getting an annual letter from people you once may have known fairly well, but with whom you've lost basic touch, only serves to remind you how far apart you've become. On the other hand, getting that letter gives you a sense of the connection to your own past. We get one every year from the widow of the pastor of our church back in Waterbury. She's got to be 90 by this time, yet her typewritten letters tell of travels and experiences and, frankly, about people we don't know. Still, it serves to let us know Esther is alive and well and still singing in the choir. We have no other connection to that small facet of our lives except her Christmas letter.
In this day and age of instant messaging, e-mail saturation, and mobile phones, it's still nice to receive a letter, even if it is mass-produced. These epistolary rundowns on the state of the family can be funny, or poignant; a litany of accomplishments or a laundry list of bad luck. Tantalizing remarks prompt spontaneous phone calls, reconnecting old friends even briefly. People come and go in our lives, serve a purpose for a particular stage of life, then fade away into memory. A Christmas letter ignites those memories, and, even if we're publicly dismissive about the idea of them, we enjoy that incremental access into an old acquaintance's present.
Writing the Christmas letter is another thing. Because you're speaking for a group, usually the whole immediate family, it is sometimes hard to choose the voice to use, hence a lot of Bob did this and Mary did that with no clear sense of who actually wrote the letter. A friend of mine told me about the letter that her friends send, in which each family member puts in his or her own paragraph. Nice idea, but I had a hard time picturing a sullen teenager sitting down to do his part. She admitted that some of it may have been dictated.
The other challenge is to decide what sliver of information about which kid are you going to impart? How do you balance the parental boasting of Sally's Oscar nomination with the off-hand mention of little Johnny's brush with the law? Christmas letters shouldn't be left in the hands of the overly cheerful, or the despondent. Perhaps there should be ghostwriters for Christmas letters. I love getting letters that are little tick marks in my friends' lives, for example, what grade are the kids in, are there any new babies or jobs? A trip to Italy, lovely. A quick family rundown, member by member, so that I know all is well. If things aren't going well, a form Christmas letter maybe isn't the platform to impose on distant friends during the holiday season, which has enough stress already.
Because these letters tend to be mass-produced, with perhaps a line or two of individualization after the signature, it is essential to hit the right tone of hail-fellow-well-met and offer real information. Let's face it, you generally don't send these to the people you see all the time. (They already know about Johnny.) But if you don't stay in touch otherwise, a Christmas letter can be a good thing.
Some rules: Keep it short. Keep it interesting. Keep it cheerful: this is the season of hope, after all. Keep it informative but without too much detail. On the other hand, make sure the pertinent facts are there if you mention Bob is recovering nicely. From what?
And, for goodness sake, include your e-mail address. Who knows, you might renew a beautiful relationship.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.