Rethinking Christmas letters

by Steve Harrison

When I was younger I used to look down my nose at Christmas letters. According to the Smithsonian, the tradition started soon after World War II and proliferated with the more widespread use of copy machines. My gripe stemmed from what I perceived to be the sender’s need to brag about their latest acquisition, promotion, travel destination, or love connection.

Then there were the very sad letters sent by older relatives who categorized diminished circumstances, listing the loss of health, relationships, jobs, loved ones, and life’s interests. I was judgmental, but curious. I certainly looked forward to reading the letters which came from unknown friends of my parents, found in the stack of Christmas cards displayed on a silver tray, usually on the dining room table. I still read the few letters my mother’s older friends send, the letters having grown shorter, the handwriting shaky until they stop.

As I got older and started my own traditions. I again looked forward to a missive tucked into a holiday card. As much as I’m grateful to be remembered by even a signed card, receiving an informative note, handwritten or computer generated pictures, is much more a treat than just a signed card.

Nosey as I am, I find myself relishing the information, often from someone with whom I haven’t had daily contact in quite some time. Even from intimates about whom I know most of what is reported, I enjoy seeing what they focus on, what they choose to emphasize.  I no longer judge the information as a sign of gloating. I find myself rooting for a spirit still engaged in life, looking for insight from lives well lived, celebrating the advancements of peers and their children, congratulating the writer who has overcome a health challenge or found a new love.

This year, especially when daily contact has been limited, curtailed to the sporadic emails, texts or phone calls, an old-fashioned Christmas letter feels like a hug from afar. Even when copied multiple times, published for consumption by more than just me, the holiday letter gives us insight into what our friends have been up to, what has occupied and engaged their lives and minds.

I started sending out letters about 20 years ago, when I had family news that needed to be reported to everyone on my Christmas list. Subsequently, I have tried to focus on the year in a way that’s entertaining and maybe humorous and full of news that reflects who I am. What has resulted is a 20-year chronicle of what changes have occurred in my life and our world. Frequently, I reread many of them before composing the new holiday letter, remembering moments from years past.

Some of my letters include a restaurant discovery, a favorite recipe or book, a gift from my year of living to those who I see regularly and those whose interaction is but yearly. Of course, I include the trips we have taken or challenges we have overcome, or important plans we hope to undertake. It’s all a way of connecting, of honoring a past commingling of lives, interests, and experiences. I’ve learned that the holiday letter is far more than a place for boasting, but a way to link us to our own past as well as to the lives of others. According to the Smithsonian, there are people who collect them; so who knows, maybe mine will find their way into the distant future.


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