The Lost Art of the Annual Christmas Newsletter

Unwrapping the meaning and madness of these (unintentionally) hilarious holiday tomes

christmas, holiday, holidays, christmas card, christmas newsletter, families, minnesota, minnesota culture

christmas cards alex kich – Fotolia


About this time every holiday season, my parents receive a yearly report from friends that takes the form of a daily newspaper: a four-page bi-fold complete with graphics, headlines, photo captions, TV listings, even a gossip column. The best part is the entire thing is “reported” by the senders’ three cats, who chronicle the human family members’ goings-on over the past year. The cats are regular Woodwards and Bernsteins, what with blowing the lid off the family’s new patio and such.

If you remember Woodward and Bernstein, you surely remember generic salutation, snail-mail Christmas letters. My parents have always gotten a lot of them, but I only get them occasionally. Maybe it’s about our different generations and this age of social media and all manner of outlet for constant personal disclosure. When I polled some of my friends and acquaintances about the current state of the holiday letter, I found they still exist, and the reaction of recipients ranged from annoyed indifference to mild outrage. They are boring and/or bragging, most everyone said with an eye roll. (You can tell even in an email.)

Me, I love going through my parents’ seasonal pile of letters, even though I don’t know most of the people. (I admit that I scan them to see if there is any mention of me, and if so, if the mention makes me look fat.)

The holiday letter reminds me of small town newspapers that used to announce the most pedestrian interactions among its citizenry, right down to who coffee-klatched with whom and what pastries were served. I like the expanse of an 8½ x 11 sheet of paper, allowing the narrative—such as it may be—to flow freely, not truncated to a certain character count. I love to hate the typos, the grammatical errors, and the turns of phrase that seem to flourish in this particular medium. It all tells so much about the authors.

We humans are natural storytellers, after all, and have been since the dawn of, well, being human. Reportage was essential to our existence, when passing along information was vital for survival. Along the way, we figured out written language—which became the slippery slope to the Christmas newsletter.

Just as human is the desire to make sense of a chaotic and unknowable universe. Now, alerting the world that high school junior Nick got his driver’s license definitely serves our survival as a species. But beyond that, all those seemingly mundane incidents comprise days, weeks, months, years, and then suddenly, a whole life. Maybe the authors don’t mean to be dull. Maybe they don’t mean to brag. When you’re reading about the family’s colonoscopy results (oh, I wish I were kidding) or where to purchase Steve’s self-published book of poetry (oh, I wish I were kidding), maybe someone is really saying, We got through another year by the skin of our teeth.

Perhaps I give the feline Fourth Estate too much credit. But aren’t we all writers, in one way or another, or crave to be? Be it the right detail for the Christmas letter or a 50-word biography for the class reunion? We are all Hemingways, storytellers, gazing over the roofs of Paris—or Eden Prairie—cigarette in one hand, whiskey in the other, and telling ourselves, Do not worry. You have always written your Christmas letter before and you will write it now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.

And sometimes that truest sentence amounts to, We didn’t kill each other over the construction of the &$#% patio. Happy holidays. 

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