One December, while having lunch in Seville with a British friend, I mentioned that I’d just finished composing my annual holiday letter, and he looked at me in astonishment bordering on horror.
“You actually do one of those?” he said.
“Well, yeah. It’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and family in the old country. I take it you don’t?”
“I can’t imagine anyone who would want to read about my year,” he said. “Except possibly my mother.”
I started writing Christmas letters 28 years ago, when Rich and I left California for Cleveland, Ohio. “I hear our old friends in San Francisco are referring to us in the past tense,” I told Rich. “Let’s remind them we’re still alive and kicking.”
When I moved to Spain, I yielded to the convenience of sending electronic letters to faraway friends and family, but to date I have resisted the temptation simply to email them links to my social media. I’m sure future generations will find the idea of sending an email with a pdf attachment impossibly quaint, and wax nostalgic about the olden days when there were facets of their lives that weren’t auto-posted online as they occurred.
If you’ve never received an American-style holiday letter, let me explain that they are a very mixed bag. The good ones make you laugh, cry, maybe feel a bit sentimental. The bad ones are excruciating – dull, self-aggrandizing recitals of the accomplishments of the entire family, including pets. “Snowball won a prize as the best little volunteer in the Smooch-a-Pooch booth at the cancer benefit . . .”
A holiday letter is a fun way to keep in touch, but there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about such details as content, tone, style, and the whole point of the exercise. Here are a few helpful hints I’ve gleaned over the last 28 years.
1. It’s OK (preferable, even) to write opening sentence that doesn’t put people to sleep. Every year, millions of these missives begin, “Wow! Another year has come and gone!” or “One of the blessings of the season is the chance to connect with friends and family!” Seriously, everyone on your Christmas card list already knows these things. What’s the zippiest part of your message? The story about your kid falling off the stage during the talent show and finishing her tap dance in the aisle? Start with that, and people will stay awake to read on.
2. It’s unkind to scare your readers. Few people want every gruesome detail of your grandmother’s gallbladder surgery, Fluffy getting neutered at the vet, or your divorce. If you must mention sober events, warn people in advance and keep it brief. “And now for the sad news. We lost our beloved canine companion, Mr. Snuffles, after thirteen years of good times.”
3. This isn’t the place for flagrant bragging. Yes, we all want to mention the year’s highlights, but keep it light, even a bit self-deprecating. “Thank goodness Betsy doesn’t take after me when it comes to technology; I can barely send an email, and she is now heading Google’s nanotech research. Whatever that is.”
4. Unless your readers are all professional psychics, avoid obscure references. “Bitsy and Scooter ... the City of the Tsars ... a case of greyana rakiya ... Need I say more?” Well, yes, you do. Who are Bitsy and Scooter? What and where is the City of the Tsars? And does a case of greyana rakiya require antibiotics or a corkscrew?
5. Leave ‘em smiling. The holidays are meant to be a cheerful antidote to the dog days of winter – those shortest, coldest days of the year. Your letter can be a way of wrapping a metaphorical arm around your friends’ shoulders, letting them know that they are not alone in this world, reminding them that they are loved. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the true meaning of the season.
Here’s wishing you all a mailbox full of wise, witty, and well-written holiday letters!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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