Thursday, December 17, 2009

Those Holiday Letters

Everyone complains about them, makes fun of them, even discards them, but I look forward to reading the annual holiday missives, especially the ones from people I rarely see—friends from college and grad school, old neighbors and prior workmates. I may never even have met their children, yet I enjoy learning the the intimate details of their lives during the past year.

Holiday letters are like mini-memoirs and, as with any memoir, one can learn a lot about the writer by his or her style, by what's included, and by what's left out. Some holiday letters are over-filled with holiday cheer. These writers only want to share the good stuff. I must admit, this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the holidays abound with images of brightness and hope, embodied by the lighting of Hanukkah candles and Christmas trees. It seems like a good time to focus on the positive, right?

Yet, when I read a relentlessly cheery letter, detailing the accomplishments of family members (Pete won the Heisman award, Jessica got a Fullbright, their dad finally nabbed that Nobel prize), I do wonder what's being left out (Pete may have won the Heisman but he wasn't drafted by the NFL, Jessica's boyfriend dumped her, their mom had a hysterectomy). Not that I really want to know the gory details, but sometimes the super-upbeat letters don't seem quite real.

On the other hand, some people seem to regard their holiday letters as cathartic—an opportunity to share bad news as well as good, perhaps even a chance to reveal information previously kept secret. I recently received a letter from a former neighbor. In it, he frankly described his family's struggle with his wife's serious illness during the past year. The letter provided happier notes as well, including the arrival of a new puppy in the household, but the predominant tone was one of sadness. Still, I was glad to receive the letter. It helped me feel connected to my old neighbors and brought back memories of happier times.

Ultimately, the best letters remind me of why I liked the senders in the first place. For example, I enjoy reading each year about an old friend's exploits in the wilds of Maine, even though I haven't seen him in thirty years. He still comes across as the same zany guy Eric and I knew back at the University of Chicago, when we were all graduate students there.

I won't be sending out holiday letters myself this year. After all, I'm posting these blog entries on an almost daily basis. The last thing anyone needs is a special holiday edition. But for those of you so inclined, please don't forget to write!


  1. Damn, all I send is a regular card with silly greetings!

    But that's already more than most of my French fellow countrymen (and women) who don't write cards, but who, instead, wait for January 1st to share their germs by kissing you all over (!!!) especially when they never do that the rest of the year.
    I think I'd rather receive a germ-free, informative holiday letter sometimes!

  2. I admit when my four children were still at home, and Christmas was a ragged race to the finish, the Christmas letter used to irritate me. But I've discovered as I age I have more time, and more patience to actually enjoy reading about the trials and tribulations of others. Especially, like you say, from friends and relatives I rarely see. I still don't write them myself--I tend to work those things into poems and short stories, even novels. Besides I wouldn't want to annoy those droves of Christmas receivees who detest them. So like Catherine says, I tend to just send the card with my own silly greeting and call it good. Bonnie