Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas Letters

Christmas Letters

The topic of this post is a somewhat loaded subject: the tradition of the annual Christmas letter is despised, ridiculed, and parodied by many – not without considerable justification – yet it persists. In fact, a few years ago, I succumbed and started the tradition in our own family. Now why would I do that and expose myself to ridicule?

There are several reasons. We had received a number of these from friends and family over the years and – surprise! – with the exception of perhaps one (and it was from someone that we are not really closely connected to by family relationship or friendship), they were all interesting (a lot of news we had not heard), well written, and even really funny. Bragging was kept to a minimum – OK, there was some subtle bragging, but nothing crass and over the top. And the bragging was mostly limited to children/grandchildren, which is legitimate, because bragging about children is one of the big reasons for having children, right? As a matter of fact, these letters and the Christmas cards that contain any significant amount of news, as well as any pictures sent with the cards, are like “mini-presents” to me, something I keep and cherish and look forward to every Christmas.

However, that in itself was not enough to tempt me to the dark side. I did not trust my writing skills or ability to avoid being obnoxiously smug over the accomplishments of my children, so I refrained for some years. I finally hit the wall one year, however – I must have been writing perhaps the 35th card, late at night, and trying for the 35th time to tailor the remarks in the card to the addressees – news they would be interested in but might not know and inquiries about what was going on in their lives. My hand and brain were cramping. On the table I had a pile of cards, pictures, and letters we had so far received, and it started to dawn on me – even taking into account the time and effort required to produce a decently-written Christmas letter (and for the really high-quality ones, I believe that’s a lot), it would still save me a lot of time and eye- and hand-strain. Another motivation was the fact that, despite my best efforts, I was terrible about keeping in touch with people and keeping them informed during the rest of the year.

So I succumbed. And after a lot of struggling, second thoughts, and finally resignation that I would never be one of the top practitioners of the art of the Christmas letter, I produced one. It almost – but not quite – seemed to be as much work as before. And I kept having problems with that imaginary “smug-o-meter,” measured in the sneers and jeers my na├»ve pride in my children would be certain to inspire. In fact, in subsequent years I would deliberately pick only a couple “thrill of victory” moments and carefully try to balance them with “agony of defeat” happenings such as our annual basement floods, crashing trees, and major household system failures (and this year, the record set by my older daughter in number of times stranded in an airport without any assistance from the guilty airline). The most surprising thing was that when I edited out certain awards, my usually modest children (the ones who used to casually thrust a certificate or medal my way and mumble in embarrassment – “Here’s another award, no big deal”) would correct what they felt was a lapse of memory – “You forgot about (insert name of award here). “ So I did not always succeed in maintaining the light, non-self-important tone I had hoped to achieve.

If I had any advice for anyone who is considering adopting this much-maligned custom, it would be not to worry overly much about the contents or writing style, other than employing a little bit of restraint and following the basic rules of grammar and style. People who enjoy Christmas letters are probably mostly interested in the news, and so much the better if they can get a laugh or two out of it. Our Christmas letter for this year was probably the easiest one for me to write, and that is probably due to the fact that I decided to write only a short one because this year has been a tiring year with a lot of frustrations. I wasn’t even going to try to be witty. And guess what? It turned out as long as any of the other letters (I hope that’s not bad) and maybe even a little funny (not due to my skills – the events were kind of funny when you put them all together – did I mention Christmas letters help you put the past year in perspective?), and there was only one brag.

So what does this have to do with genealogy? I am sure that anyone who is seriously interested in genealogy already knows. These letters are often a valuable source of information on a family, providing and filling in information on a key element that is often missing in genealogies – the highlight events of that family’s life, few of which would otherwise be found in records and are often missing from other correspondence that may survive. For this reason, I save all the Christmas letters I receive as well as all those I write. I enjoy re-reading them and the memories they bring back, much as I greatly enjoyed receiving my old high school scrapbook in the mail this year from my kind and generous Cousin Fred, whose mother (my Aunt Rene) had recovered and kept the scrapbook after my mother died. So – Christmas letters may earn the disdain of many, but I hope no genealogy buffs are among those “superior” people.

Note added immediately after this post was written: Wouldn’t you know it, just as I was finishing this post I took a break and was reading the local newspaper, when I came across an article about Christmas letters. And after briefly touching on the potential plusses of these letters, the author continues: “For others, it is a time-consuming and cringe-worthy missive that probably will head straight to the recycling bin. After, of course, the reader rolls her eyes. ‘Anyone who sends me a Christmas letter is leaving themselves open to ridicule in my house,’ says (name left out for reasons of … of …), a letter-hater in Reston.” Ouch! Well, letter-hater in Reston, my New Year’s wish for you is that you receive no personal letters this year, because I’m sure most or all of them would not meet your lofty standards. Among the advice offered in the article: “Stick to the happy.” We try not to be a Moaning Myrtle, but some of the big events in our lives are not exactly happy ones. If someone close to you passes away, you cannot pretend that that has not had a major impact, though it is a good idea to review the good memories associated with that person. And, contrary to the advice not to put in too much detail, we even include a sentence or two on our cats; after all, at least one family, friends and former neighbors who are major animal buffs, are intensely interested in any and all animal antics. So, genealogy people, just as you have to have a thick skin when interviewing the tight-lipped, uncooperative relative, you should probably also ignore the literary mavens who scorn your humble epistolary efforts – keep on writing those letters! And save them!

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