Every year, Chris Balamut hovers over his computer, pulling together the elements for the annual family Christmas letter.
“It’s not just a letter, it’s become a production,” said Balamut, 67, of St. Paul. “I consider it my gift to the people we’re close to.”
What started 30 years ago as a humble one-pager has evolved into an elaborate, six-page, tabloid-style newspaper loaded with photos and updates on four generations of his extended family, which is spread across several continents.
“I stand back and look over what happened in the year, then have fun with it,” said Balamut, a retired television producer. “I would let it go, but my wife says people love it. They look forward to holding it in their hands.”
Unlike the Balamuts, most families no longer have that opportunity.
Christmas letters are “a dying tradition,” said Ann Burnett, communications professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “There are fewer of them and the ones that go out are shorter. Nobody under age 40 writes them anymore.”
The mass missives gained widespread popularity with the advent of copying machines, which made it easy to insert a Xeroxed letter into every Christmas card, rather than having to scribble personal notes. Soon everyone on your card list knew all about the family vacation to Hawaii, Jane’s acceptance into the honor society and how Joe sold more Boy Scout wreaths than anyone else in his troop.
But the rise of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other sites have sounded the death knell for the sometimes-mocked letters.
“Younger people already know what’s going on with their circle through social media updates and say, ‘What’s the point of a letter?’ ” said Burnett, who admits to mourning their demise.
Twenty years ago, Burnett began collecting Christmas letters. Since then, she’s amassed a collection of more than 2,500, which she stores in crates in her Fargo office. Burnett uses the letters to track trends in contemporary family relationships.
With omnipresent cameras and the sharing options of the digital realm, our daily lives have never been more obsessively documented. But a selfie or a 140-character Tweet doesn’t convey as much information or insight as a single-spaced typed letter.
“This keeps me up at night,” said Lori Williamson, outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Historical Society. “What will historians of the future look at that will tell about our time? People don’t write letters or keep diaries, and what replaces it is ephemeral.”
The Historical Society also keeps holiday letters in its collections, which are treasured for their unique perspective on the times when they were composed.
“Christmas letters are primary-source documents, a direct line to the past with no filter between you and the person talking. You hear their voice, you learn about their lived experience,” she said. “People studying genealogy have names and dates, but documents like this give you the rich family stories.”
A study in bragging
Christmas letters, like social media platforms that followed, became an acceptable place to brag, something Burnett studied closely.
“There are different types of brags,” she said. “One is a brag about a person the writer is related to, as if somehow their accomplishment is going to rub off on them. Another brag is when there is a good outcome of a situation, which seems to suggest that they deserved it,” she said.
She even learned how punctuation was used to show “the emphasis and the force of the brag.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I passed the bar the first time,’ another when it’s written in all caps or with five exclamation points,” she said.
In her two decades of analysis, Burnett also chronicled a steady increase in how much and how often people bragged about how busy they were.
“Being busy is now a badge of honor,” she said. “It’s a way of saying that you must be more important than people living a slower pace. We see it in all ages: Two-year-olds are busy and so are retirees.”
Ironically, being overbooked may have hastened the decline of holiday letters.
Last year, Burnett conducted a survey about holiday mail and found that 74 percent of the 225 people she polled reported a reduction in the number of greetings they received by snail mail or e-mail.
When she asked respondents who had stopped composing Christmas letters why they had done so, “too busy” was the No. 1 response, followed by the feeling that social media made a December letter redundant.
Many also noted that their children were grown, “so they didn’t feel the need” to compose a letter. The high cost of postage was also mentioned.
Cards are down, not out
Christmas cards also have seen a decline. But, unlike the Christmas letter, they’re not gone completely. Instead, traditional cards have largely been replaced by the photo card, among those who still send holiday greetings, said Burnett. The cards feature a few well-selected family photos along with brief captions and a preprinted greeting.
Chris Balamut isn’t having any of it.
Balamut continues to produce his Christmas newsletters to help strengthen family bonds, especially the links among the younger members.
While his two millennial children and various young adult nieces, nephews and cousins thank him for his annual effort, Balamut is a little forlorn that not one of them has taken up the tradition of writing a Christmas letter to their friends and families.
“When I started this, it was painstaking to produce, but today’s tools make it so easy to put out something original. I know the younger generation has the skills to create letters that would resonate but they lack the interest,” he sighed. “They don’t realize how much fun it is to share the pride you have in your family.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.