A few weeks ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on, and subsequently mailing, our holiday greetings, I began to wonder how others around the world, and even in other parts of the US (say, the deep South, which can seem like a foreign country to those of us in the north, but I’m sure the bafflement is mutual), send Christmas cheer in a non-electronic way. In my corner of the globe, there are three ways to do this:
The Christmas Card
This seems like it needs no explanation, but what do I know? Outside of my limited experience with holiday greetings – that is, the US, Canada, and western Europe – I’m curious: do those who celebrate Christmas in other parts of the world send cards to friends, family, clients, and colleagues? Do senders just sign their names and let the card do the talking, or do they add a few lines to keep people up-to-date on their lives?
The Christmas Photo Card
With the advent (pun intended) of technology came an increase in photo cards. Prior to this, only the occasional paper greeting card contained any kind of photo, sometimes one painstakingly affixed to the front of the card with glue or tape, but otherwise just placed inside – a little surprise for the recipient. In most cases, though, you simply had to guess at how tall little Timmy had gotten or what Stan and Helen looked like standing on the deck of their cruise ship. Eventually, glossy, multi-photo Christmas cards became very easy to produce, even from the comfort of home. Over time, more options have been added, so that you can stick with the single-photo rectangular glossy if you wish, or move up to “pearl shimmer” multi-fold cardstock with a different photo emblazoned on each of the six surfaces (for those who don’t mind spending a small fortune on something that will hang around for three weeks and then be tossed unceremoniously into the recycling bin).
Here’s one piece of unsolicited advice before I move on: please don’t send me a photo card of just your children. In many cases, I haven’t seen little Betsy since she was in diapers, even though she’s now getting her MBA, and in other cases I’ve never even met your kids. It’s you I’m friends with, so make sure to include the adults (and pets – love the pets!) in the photos. And if you’ve avoided this because you’ve put on a little weight over the years, don’t worry. I have, too (and taken it off, and put it back on, and taken it off, and put it back on…).
The Christmas Letter
This is the tradition whose global ubiquity I am questioning. As I’ve mention in previous posts, I was raised in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. While growing up, my family received many standard paper Christmas cards each year, but within the glut of holiday mail, we also received Christmas letters. My mother, too, always sent out a Christmas letter with each greeting card – one she dutifully banged out on the typewriter at the kitchen table and then – this being the days before home printers – gave to my dad to duplicate on his office’s copy machine. For the uninitiated, a Christmas letter is a 1-2-page summary of the events of the past year, intended for far-flung friends and family (alliteration not intended – sometimes it just happens) who are rarely seen in person. Traditionally, there are a few paragraphs detailing the achievements of each of the kids (Susie’s first prom, Johnny’s new job bagging groceries, Sally’s volleyball triumphs, and Karen’s college preparations) followed by a paragraph that reports the major goings-on of the parents (often including a mention of a family vacation and how they are coping with the daily grind).
Now, the Christmas letter is by no means a universal form of holiday greeting in the US. In fact, some people deride it as a self-aggrandizing brag rag. It’s true that they can sometimes come off that way. (A friend of a friend disliked holiday letters so much that her response was to write a two-page utterly fictional account of her family’s year. Total fantasy. I suppose this was meant to be funny, but I found it an unfortunate waste of paper.) Usually, though, people are just trying convey the noteworthy events of the year in a well-meaning way. Many people enjoy receiving Christmas letters, but don’t write one themselves. Still others, I have found, cease production once they become empty-nesters, though they rarely go cold turkey – these days you can add several sentences to a photo card, making it a miniaturized version of a traditional Christmas letter. And sometimes, once grandchildren enter the picture, the full-fledged letter springs back to life.
I, myself, write an annual Christmas letter. I picked up the habit about 20 years ago. I had been writing out traditional Christmas cards when I realized I was penning the same paragraph over and over. It was tedious and inefficient. Plus, it gave my hand a cramp, which made it difficult to pick up Christmas cookies and stuff them into my mouth.
That was when I knew something had to change, and the following year my Christmas letter was born. I admit that when I go back and read some of my earliest letters, I cringe a little. They may have been, unintentionally, a bit brag-raggy, but over time I developed a method that I think produces a not-too-boasty Christmas letter: tell about those big events, to be sure, but make sure to include a healthy dose of self-flagellation. Divulge those foibles, blunders, and outright f&!%-ups that can be funny once they are over and done with, and if told the right way. Take the piss out of yourself (as the British say), and others if you dare, even if those others will be on the receiving end of your letter. This keeps friends and family from thinking your life is perfect (though nobody who knows the husband or me is under the laughable illusion that our lives are perfect). It might cause the people you took the piss out of to think you’re an ass, but hopefully they will understand it’s all in aid of brag rag avoidance. Here is an example of this:
I could have written: The husband’s athletic prowess earned him a spot at this year’s Triathlon National Championship where he placed 99th in the nation.
Instead I wrote: A couple of solid performances in 2013 earned the husband a spot in this year’s USA Triathlon® Olympic-Distance Age Group National Championship (which I will refer to henceforth as the U.S.A.T.O.D.A.G.N.C.). Thus, just days after returning from Europe – jet-lagged, crabby, and with uncomfortably tight pants – we made the journey to the glittering metropolis of Milwaukee. (In fairness, the gritty, industrial city I remember from my youth seems to have made a turn-around and thus has been upgraded to “not bad.”) See? You can take the piss out of places, too. Anyway, continue. While 99th place did not qualify him for the world championship (it’s OK – we couldn’t afford the trip to Australia anyway), the husband enjoys telling anyone who will listen that he is among the top 100 triathletes – among 40-44-year-olds, that is – in the entire country. He also tweets about his U.S.A.T.O.D.A.G.N.C. performance on a regular basis, though he has exactly zero followers on Twitter.
In case you’re taking notes for your next Christmas letter, here’s one more example:
I could have written: We spent two delightful weeks touring Italy, including Rome, Florence, Siena, the Dolomites – with a side trip to Chur, Switzerland – Lake Como, and the Cinque Terre.
Instead I wrote: …so I dabbled in Italian for Dummies®, which provided me with just enough of a base to be polite to shopkeepers. Alas, it was not enough to prevent an embarrassing international incident. The gaffe occurred in Siena when I wandered bare-shouldered into the city’s famous cathedral. People in official-looking uniforms approached, eyebrows were raised, and a disposable crepe-paper shawl was proffered to cover the offending joints, as scores of appropriately-clad tourists looked on in disgust. (In my defense, it was hot, it was June in Italy, and if there was a sign that said “Spalle nude sono un’offensa alla buona società e sono riservati per le prostitute e simili,” I never saw it. Nor could I probably have understood it.) I spent the rest of the time in the cathedral trying to focus on the Gothic art of the 13th and 14th centuries, all the while being distracted by dozens of people who were baring their naked shoulders, unhindered by crepe paper shawls.
See how the recounting of your fabulous life experiences can be hidden under a mountain of self-deprecation and the ridicule of others?
So what will be the fate of the Christmas letter? It feels like it’s going the way of the dodo bird. With the rise in social media sites like Facechat®, Instatweet®, and Snapgram®, with which I have little to no experience, is the annual Christmas missive even necessary? Is it destined for the trash heap of history, like so much sadly unrecyclable crumpled Christmas wrap and uneaten fruitcake? (Wait! Don’t toss that fruitcake! The husband will eat it.) Have you ever received one, and did it make you scratch your head in puzzlement (as it did my English in-laws the first time they received ours) or roll your eyes with scorn? Are you a Christmas letter hater or devotee? Be honest – I can take it. What’s the done thing where you live? And, regardless of your view on the matter, Merry Christmas!