A Dying Literary Genre: The Christmas Letter

It’s four days until Christmas, and I’ve gotten hardly any Christmas letters. You may remember those from the distant past….say, 1995. In mid-December, your mailbox would fill up with cards from great-aunts and cousins and friends from college who’d moved far away. The cards almost always included a one-page summary of what the family had been up to that year. Since so many of those letters were full of humble-bragging, they got a bad rap. (“Our beautiful daughter is a straight-A student at a super prestigious college and our amazing son plays seven different sports, plus my darling husband got a promotion!”)

Such letters didn’t necessarily reflect the messy realities of family life–or the stress of holiday To Do lists.

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But I liked them! They helped me stay in touch with people I didn’t see very often, and each one was a reflection of the person writing it. I remember one former co-worker who sent out a brutally honest report from her dysfunctional family: her son was finishing up rehab, her daughter had gone off to Tokyo and disappeared for awhile, she and her husband kept bickering but were still married. In the years before confessional mommy blogs, her honesty was pretty shocking–and made me like her even more.

After I had my eldest daughter, I vividly remember writing my first Christmas letter–it was one of the milestones that signaled I had now officially started my own family. My own parents continue to write about me and my sister in their Christmas letters, even though we moved out of the house decades ago. (For years, she and I would also keep track of who’d scored a bigger paragraph…i.e., which one had done something worth bragging about.)

But this year, I never got around to writing one. Why bother? When you get Facebook status updates on friends’ and relatives’ lives, it doesn’t seem worth it to write up a whole year-end rundown. We’ve all got plenty of other stuff to do. The vast majority of cards I get these days are beautifully printed with family photos, but don’t have actual writing on them.

And that’s fine, if you’re sending cards to everyone you know. I love seeing pictures of everyone’s cute kids! But for me, as a writer, it feels wrong to send out a card without writing at least something on it. So I’ve come up with my own self-imposed system: I send cards to all my close relatives, and to good friends I don’t get to see often enough. I scribble some kind of personal message, and for those few minutes, I feel connected to that person. Which I think is kind-of the point.

I’m not sending cards to the parents of my kids’ friends or neighbors I chat to when I’m taking a walk–and that’s O.K. I’m not getting caught up in the “you sent me a card so now I feel obligated to send you one” dynamic. I love getting cards, whatever they look like, but Christmas should never feel like a competition. And whenever I get nostalgic about Christmas letters, I can always count on getting one from my parents.

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