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Arts & Culture

Family Christmas Letters: Love 'Em Or Hate 'Em?


It’s been said the only mail that arrives on time, in perfect condition, is the mail that begins with the word “unless.”  This time of year, there’s another kind of correspondence flooding our mailboxes: the annual holiday family letters from relatives and friends who don’t make that much contact, and in a lot of cases, don’t know when to quit. 

The theory of sound as a memory toucher really rears itself during the holiday season.  From Christmas songs to the rustling of wrapping gifts to special holiday programming, most of us have a sound that takes us back.

As those sounds spark memories—sometimes we’re taken aback by the contents of the mailbox.  To many people, the red and green envelopes containing Christmas cards also have something they dread—the multiple-copied Christmas letter.

Fran Hill of Colome touches on this on her “On My Plate” blog—seen on the website of South Dakota Magazine.  Hill simply rolls her eyes at the holiday greetings.

"You know the one", she writes.  "The Christmas Letter from the perfect family.  It usually includes a photo of the whole family with glossy hair and matching sweaters.  The chatty letter tells of new cars, bigger houses and elaborate vacations.  Their children eat their vegetables, have never had a cavity and get straight A’s.  Dad just got another promotion at work while maintaining his perfect golf game.  Mom has just broken through the corporate glass ceiling, and still bakes cookies for every PTA event.  And Goldie—the faithful Golden Retriever—has never, ever, pooped on the floor.”
For the most part, Hill is on to these people, and when she gets their letters, she reads between the lines for the truth:

She writes, “Peering at the holiday photo, you search for a sign of the true story—the juicy bits.  Are they wearing turtlenecks this year to cover up the tattoo Johnny got during his drunken trip to Mexico?  Is Dad’s arm around Susie, not just as a sign of affection, but an attempt to hold her back from the biker dude that has been rumbling into the driveway at all hours of the day and night?   Mom’s credit cards are maxed out with ugly matching sweater purchases.  And those cookies?  Tubes of dough are her best friend.”
Along Vermillion’s main business thoroughfare, Cherry Street—reactions are somewhat mixed from those who receive mass produced Christmas letters.  People spending the morning at Jill’s Hair Company have definite opinions.

According to Cleo, "I prefer a short note--because so many times, if it's someone you haven't seen in a while, you have no idea who their family is, they've grown up, and I just think a personal note is a lot better than that other information."

Cindy, a stylist at Jill's says, "I have one who is sick a lot the whole year--and that's pretty much what their whole Christmas letter is."
While just up the street, at Cedar County Veterinary Service—one person looks forward to hearing from loved ones through their enclosures.

Marie says, "Honestly, I prefer to get a letter.  A full-fledged letter, even if it is being sent to everyone.  I really enjoy reading what they've been up to, and I like to use that to kind of keep in touch."
When it comes to the Christmas letter—a bit of fact-checking is a good idea.  It’s a pretty safe bet that no one could rescue a kitten from a train tracks, lose a leg in the attempt, and later become a college football place-kicker.  A study of kinesiology and physics would back us on this.  But more than a few people have made their family sound much more impressive than they are.  Cynthia Ewer, who hosts the Organized Home website, has an idea of the reasons for such embellishment.

Ewer reflects, “I think it’s a competitiveness thing—once the first one comes through the door, those who are apt to send those things begin racheting up their expectations.  And with every new letter it becomes more pronounced.  People who do this kind of have a little bit of shuttered vision.”
Ewer says, with the explosion of technology— revelers have one more opportunity to out-do everyone else.  She adds many of them don’t know what they’re doing.
She says,  “You know, back in the day, you had to type the thing and then you went over to the copy shop and you made some copies.  And if you were extremely daring, you might stick a little photo on there for your photo copies.  Well now, everybody’s a desk top publisher—and unfortunately, many of us haven’t gotten an education in good design.  So you get that enormously complex, tiny type, wall-to-wall, no gutters, no white space—because people feel they have to fill the page.”
On her blog, Ewer outlines several steps for writing the perfect holiday letter.  As discussed earlier, it can be a real downer to start off with a gall bladder surgery, or a wonder of where the time has gone.  She says, start with something positive.  She also includes suggestions such as writing in your own voice—remembering your audience—and make it personal, with a short hand-written note at the end.
But—what if the rest of the family has missed the memo, and the letters are full of bragging and perfectly-performed feats that have astounded mere mortals for centuries? 

Asked if it’s okay to call out the writer on these—Ewer’s answer is pretty succinct.
"Oh, good Heavens, no—oh, my." 

Ewer adds, "you know, a lot of times at the holidays, this issue comes up; whether it’s the mother-in-law that gives you the ugly Christmas sweater—or the person who gives you the over-the-top bragging holiday letter.  There’s one value during the holidays that, no matter what your background, we hope will come out in your interactions with others.  And that’s simply—be kind.  You know, consider the source, consider the need to send, consider the events—and simply, try and love ‘em anyway.”
Good luck with that—and have a good Christmas season.