Year after year, since the early 1970s, we've been sending out our dreaded annual holiday letter. This time around, however, I'm just not into writing it. But after 40-plus Christmases, I hate to break the tradition.
Why have I soured after four decades of cranking out our yearly family letter? At this point, shouldn't it be getting easier?
Writing self-promoting festive family updates ideally should put one in the proper warm, fuzzy spirit to face the holiday season. But actually creating one of these long-winded yearly epistles can be a rather daunting exercise. For starters, it's too easy to get all braggy and show-offy. Who needs multiple pages of gratuitous grandstanding disguised as Yuletide cheer?
Too often self-published letters read like annual reports to shareholders. A one-size-fits-all approach to holiday communication can easily escalate into a competition among annoying over-achievers and their amazingly perfect children.
Back in the day, mimeographed greetings turned into party fodder at my house. My siblings and I would do dramatic readings on New Year's Eve of the most obnoxious holiday letters our folks received. Instead of feeling like the teenage slugs we undoubtedly were, we mocked the lengthy descriptions of each superstar family's gifted kids who played multiple sports, won All-Hemisphere spelling bees, played lead roles in The Nutcracker, became Eagle Scouts, and garnered soccer trophies and Fulbright scholarships while forming a Junior Achievement company that was featured in Fortune magazine.
Some of our bizarre kinfolk should have been featured in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not." One wacko step-cousin in California tried to teach her pet octopus to write with a ballpoint pen; a twisted aunt-by-marriage baked anatomically correct gingerbread men; and an over-zealous Lutheran shirttail relative in the Quad Cities who baptized his cats.
Instead of warming our hearts, these tell-all annual updates were smug and self-absorbed. When my three kids were little and we were dealing with the usual holiday hell of exhaustion, whining, teasing, tantrums, defiance, bed-wetting and/or projectile vomiting, it was rather vexing to read about other folks' offspring who were such angelic little overachievers.
I usually overlook misspellings and typos, run-ons and sentence fragments. What's far worse is TMI: too much information about marital debacles, heartbreaking fertility problems, or details like the size of one's kidney stone or the on-going siege of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Then there are the folks who seldom bother to identify the people they're talking about. They rarely say "my sister Esmeralda" or "our middle son Dagwood." You just have to guess. "Chico and Tubby enjoyed their annual get-away to The Dells." Who are Chico and Tubby? Rottweilers? Imaginary friends? "Can you believe Sluggo and Cuteness have gotten Rollo to eat sushi?" Servants? In-laws? "Zeke and Inez will be here for the holidays." Former lovers? Ferrets?
Some enclose sweet photos of their children or grandchildren in the envelope. But the people you know are seldom in the shots. You end up with lots of pictures of darling, unidentified kids in the bottom of your Christmas card basket. We actually made up a "card game" called "Name That Newborn." I'm tempted to take all the photos to the 7-11 and surreptitiously paste them on milk cartons.
Accomplishments, of course, deserve to be celebrated and health setbacks to be recognized. But gloom and doom can take over a newsletter. It usually begins, "On a sad note..." then launches into a gore-fest of debilitating illnesses, surgical procedures gone awry, and lengthy memorializing of deceased pets. (So far, fortunately, no one has complained about those pesky erections that last more than four hours.)
Holiday letters are like fruitcake: Some people love 'em, most folks don't.
But I have to admit, once I start reading them, I'm in. They're like an accident on the highway. They make me squirm but I can't look away.
To be honest, despite their drawbacks I really enjoy the window into other lives that holiday letters provide. Even if you think you know the family well, there's always a new wrinkle or a different story. I love that. Families are ever a work in progress.
So tonight I guess I'll sit down and start writing. No embellishments, no sappy sentimental, no trying to be witty or wise. "Just the facts," as Sgt. Joe Friday used to instruct witnesses on Dragnet. Just a little holiday cheer mixed with a light summary of what's been going on around here since last year. How hard can that be?
Answer Book 2018
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