There is the art of writing letters, and then there is the art of writing Christmas letters, which hardly anyone masters.
To write Christmas letters, a person will ideally have a highly-refined sense of how much overstatement, embellishment, and lies by omission others can stand. But if a person has no such sense in their head, it would help for them to have a sense of irony so that when people say, “I love getting your letters,” they won’t get a swollen head.
I was brought up in a family of braggarts, all of whom were strangers to irony.
The other day, I mentioned my disappointment over that to my mother and she said, “Um… well, can you tell me what irony is?”
Those who could master the art of writing Christmas letters, because they know how to avoid horn-blowing and because they are blessed with irony, are the last people on earth who would write them.
When I was a child, my grandmother got long, Xeroxed, pride-filled Christmas letters from a distant relative, the most hyperbolic rundowns of a rather ordinary middle-class family’s year than most people can imagine. Maybe my grandmother and I were the only ones who read those letters with awe, ooh-ing and aah-ing over such grand exploits as her fifth cousin driving a golf cart in a small-town parade. We were much below middle class, and we were darn proud of being related to such accomplished people!
So when I had children and for the first time lived a life that seemed successful to me, (my husband had a full-time job, we were involved in our children’s education, we weren’t renters, and we had vehicles that were not in danger of breaking down), I started writing Christmas letters. I admit here, because December is The Sirens’ month of Confession, that I violated the first rule of Christmas letter writing (don’t brag or overstate), but I would like to say in my defense that I followed some of the other rules (remember your audience, use your own voice, start out on a high note, end with a good wish for the new year), and I tried to be funny.
I said tried.
I would quote some of my letters here (because I saved them, along with the family photographs I tucked into the envelopes), but I don’t want to embarrass myself. Can’t my confession be enough?
The trouble with writing these prideful Christmas letters is that people make fun of you behind your back, they start to hate you, and some become jealous, which is the saddest of all. (Hardly anyone has the reaction I had as a child: “They have two cars, one is brand new, and I’m related to them!”) And if you’re as blockheaded as I was when I was writing them, you won’t realize you’re being mocked and loathed. Why? Because you’re too busy sitting in front of a TV tuned to the channel that plays that video of a roaring fire, re-reading your letter and sipping mulled cider, admiring your aptitude for writing the holiest of all group letters, the annual Christmas letter proclaiming your children to be nearly as lovable and worthy as the Christ Child himself.
A former friend of mine (“former” having nothing to do with my Christmas letters; I just couldn’t take her Debbie Downer personality) once remarked that I never put anything negative in my Christmas letters. I didn’t complain about my husband or children. “Well, who wants to read that?” I said. Plus, I considered it a cardinal sin to adopt any attitude about my children other than love and gratitude, no matter how many times they took off their diapers and stood in the front windows wearing only shirts.
I got a complaint-laden Christmas letter from a former neighbor in which she recounted what a selfish, deadbeat jerk her ex-husband was (they were married when they were our neighbors), how he didn’t pay child support and was shacking up with some woman, how she and her children suffered, etc. I didn’t want to read that, for sure. The next time I saw her, I agreed with her that he was no good, and I told her I was glad she was rid of him. When they got back together and remarried, she stopped talking to me! See how bad it can turn out if you tell the truth in a Christmas letter?
Though I thought writing Christmas letters was a shameless exercise in overstatement and amplification, which I got really good at because practice makes perfect, there was something much deeper underlying my letters. I portrayed my family as the happy, functional family that I was trying hard to cultivate for my children. I’d had a childhood bereft of things that count– parents at home paying attention to me, steady school attendance, etc. I worked hard to try to give my children the opposite. I was doing okay, and my boastful letters were my way of recording that progress, but they weren’t “fair and balanced” (as I hear nothing that claims to be fair and balanced actually is).
I kept copies of the letters because I intended to one day make albums of the letters and photos, one for each of my children. But I won’t do that to them now.
My last Christmas letter was written a few years ago. My daughter, a freshman in high school then, read my letter and then wrote a spoof letter. When she read hers to her big brothers they laughed and laughed. I realized that my own children, who once thought the letters were special, had matured enough to know the letters were ridiculous while I, who should have long since outgrown the need to write them as a way of making myself feel better about my life, was still taking them seriously.
I wouldn’t quote my own Christmas letter, but I will quote Laureli’s spoof. She obviously picked up on the habit I had of putting a positive spin on everything imaginable.
We have had some joyful news this year. Laureli recently gave birth to her first daughter, Isabelle Plath. We are all in the dark as to whom the father may be. It’s one of seven boys at her high school, two of whom are football players. She’s a popular girl. She is working hard at school to keep up her 2.5 GPA in the hopes of someday becoming the manager at the McDonalds where she works!
Chuckie is holding on to his job as a pizza delivery driver despite his alcoholism. It is difficult to quit, of course, but even harder since his two younger brothers will not cease throwing parties. He uses his tips from deliveries to supply the booze for the parties, the rest is spent on the hookers, and in return his brothers don’t rat him out. I can’t help but feel proud of them, and what mother wouldn’t, when they work together so well?!
What Laureli wrote at 14 got a laugh at the expense of people who didn’t deserve it– McDonald’s managers, alcoholics, and hookers. I’m quite sure she would not be proud of that today, just as I am not proud of what I wrote.
It’s painful thinking back on those letters and remembering the one hundred or so people I always sent them to, even though there were many people who told me they looked forward to my letters. Either they were holding a “Most Awful Christmas Letter” contest and already had bets on how bad mine would be, or they had thick skin and cared about my family. I finally wised up, but I paraded my ignorance in front of everyone year after year. Thinking about it makes me feel kind of the way it feels when you dream you’re naked and everyone else had the good sense to show up wearing clothes.
At least my kids won’t be writing Christmas letters when they become parents. I have that to offer the world.
Merry Christmas, from our house to yours.
If you know someone who writes Christmas letters– enjoyable or not– send this to them. I double-dog dare you.
Oh, the conversations it’ll start.
Categories: Suzannah's Voice
Reblogged this on Lisa Lanser Rose and commented:
I remember getting these letters for a couple of years from a few people. I think it was a fad in the 1990’s. Now, social media accomplished the same thing each day all year long. If I ever wrote a Christmas letter, and I may have, I think a repressed the memory.
Too bad I can’t repress my memories! Maybe some of the people who got my letters were able to forget about them. Nah. that’s just wishful thinking. When you’re faced with a train wreck so many times, I’m sure it stays with you.
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I remember getting these letters for a couple of years from a few people. I think it was a fad in the 1990’s. Now, social media accomplished the same thing each day all year long.
Thanks very much for the pingback!
Love this piece, including the spoof. I admit I read such proud-news letters cynically, then chide myself (Arthur Mock-nik!) for doing so. Why can’t we rejoice in someone’s kid being the valedictorian, a grandmother taking up yoga, a dad expanding his model-train set-up in the basement? Or in their caring to share the news with us? Maybe internet overload has cheapened glad tidings and the art of living fully, as it has all the other arts and, for that matter, tidings. If it’s not the internet, I blame Donald Trump/
Damn it, I blame Donald Trump, too! Thank you, Arthur Mocknik, for clearing that up! And thanks for the generous dose of compassion and empathy (even if you don’t get all the way there) for those of us who are afflicted by this repulsive compulsion.
This post is fantastic. Your voice is so distinctive and entertaining — I’ll definitely be reading more of your posts soon!
Thank you! I appreciate that.
Why can’t we rejoice in someone’s kid being the valedictorian, a grandmother taking up yoga, a dad expanding his model-train set-up in the basement
wow, i like your article. and i love this picture
What a great post to read, especially now in a moment in which I am fed up with preparing “Christmas” for tonight being totally stressed out, leaving broken glass in two rooms (still there), not nearly finished, and in which I decided to TAKE A BREAK. So I went into my office to check on even worse daily news, which would maybe make my own problems become a lot smaller. And the first thing I read is this your post! I had a great laugh and thank you so much for this! Merry Christmas!
You’re welcome! I’m very glad to hear it gave you a laugh. Merry Christmas. And watch out for that glass.
I’m ashamed to say, years ago I wrote the boring ones that was a recap of what my family did and places we went. Now I just send a generic e-card. I’m not sure which is worse. Thank you for the reality check.
Thanks for this! I did not send out Christmas Letters this year. With Facebook there is no need they write it for you! I still designed a beautiful e-card I had to send out though (was that still bragging!)