These are the last days of the holiday letter. By this week after Christmas, the joy of new mail is already reverting to the mean — but mail with garland on the letterhead is becoming especially endangered, more so with each passing year. The act of writing a few words about the days that have passed, printing up 50 copies and slipping them inside the outgoing stack of cards has all become a bridge too far, apparently. Three to five paragraphs of reflection and goodwill is either too hard on the sender or asking too much of the recipient. But for our house, the collection of cards is mostly a collection of faces rather than stories. If this year is anything like the one before it, we will be lucky to have picked up three holiday letters by the Feast of St. Stephen.
Should we blame Facebook? Probably. If so, the digital moment has pulled a fast one on us once again. Status updates may have removed all the surprise about what the children are up to, but they have all of the shelf life of a brown banana. People read those things at stoplights. Holiday letters, on the other hand, arrive into a home in which activity begins to slow down. You have a captive audience. You get a page, two if you are bold. You have a year to digest. What happened?
Our small haul pretty much runs the gamut. One will be signed by the colleague of a close relative, a curious and unfiltered singleton prone to tallying her trips taken, professional accomplishments garnered, films devoured, hard covers ravished and starry skies noted. As a person who can’t remember where he’s been and who has few if any carve-outs for culture between the demands of parenting, weeping and sleep, it’s an enviable picture of what life could resemble if you could ever reclaim it for yourself. I feel glad to be included on her list.
Another will arrive from an unpresuming member of the close family, a humble servant of the Lord who writes up the news of her clan with optimism and pride, playing all of it straight down the middle. New work on the house, news of her oldest out making a mark in the world, a hockey trophy for her youngest and a pair of new positions at work. It’s modest and honest.
In a marvel of efficiency, the only high-profile sender whose letter finds its way into my mailbox has managed to boil his family intel down to four lines of text accompanying the card itself. His year is surely filled with adventure; he could easily take a deep dive into the details and not be accused of boorishness. Yet last year he turned out an affectionate survey of his children’s accomplishments and his wife’s good fortune, then waved off his own activity in four words, one with four letters. You can do that sort of thing with the new holiday card-customizing software. It worked.
Rounding out our haul will be the polished prose of an accomplished college friend now living out East, a sharp eye who neither boasts nor bores and routinely threads the needle like a holiday letter-writing champ. I don’t learn about her year so much as learn how much more there is than meets the eye about life in a suburb of D.C. during a time of peace and prosperity.
As you can see, I enjoy these vestiges of a dying art. They are all surely filtered and constrained by careful self-presentation, but they give me a chance to sit at the kitchen table, eat a piece of toast and drop inside the cranium of someone else during the only week the calendar allows us to stop and take stock. As the song goes, “so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” It’s one of the saddest lines John Lennon ever wrote, when you think about it. Because you can’t exactly talk about the things that you have done.
You can’t write a holiday letter delving into the new lump on your tongue that has you searching Google with the phrase “lump on tongue.” It won’t go over well to regale your holiday list with a tally of the seven deadly sins you have struggled to shake, or your continued difficulty in speaking to your children in a manner distinct from the way you were sometimes spoken to. How we remain stuck in our ways, obsessed over our health, wealth, desires and devices.
Even playing by all these rules, somewhere, someplace, your letter will get faulted for its enthusiasm, poor use of adjectives, amateur font or spelling error in paragraph two.
I have been sending them anyway, for a dozen or so years now, more or less on the assumption that there’s a middle ground between a family press release and a microchip-enclosed card emitting the sound of primal wailing. We buried the family pet in 2014, for instance, and as many will find themselves feeling in the wake of these losses, I wanted to tell her story to someone, anyone. But I don’t know any editors at Dog Fancy. Ergo, the holiday note. I told everyone on the list — good people seeking only to enjoy their Whitman’s Sampler in peace — about the last day of my brown-eyed girl’s life. So far none of them have blocked me.
They can’t, you see. It’s called the U.S. mail, kids.
Twelve years earlier, this same Scottish terrier’s arrival in our home had anchored the holiday letter of 2002. “She never says anything,” I remember writing at the time. “That’s so weird.” And I accept that the odd musing was likely greeted with scrunched faces in some places. Some people don’t want to hear about your trips, promotions or new siding, much less your losses or wry takes on the new dog. Many of these people are your friends and relatives. I get it, I do. If you die tomorrow they will all show up and say nice things at the wake, but for now it’s a different standard.
And in their defense, they have probably all been burned by holiday letters that test a person’s goodwill. I have heard about holiday letters that take up presidential politics, or have no eye for what’s interesting, or which deftly execute the humble brag — a boast followed with the explanatory equivalent of a #blessed that just smells fishy. There are websites where you can read bad holiday letters, and while the one where the guy wrote in nightmarish detail about his job at a tech company made me lonely and sad, I found the one where a woman accused her husband of infidelity and then called out his mistress for her bad taste totally refreshing. Why can’t I get a few more of those?
After all, this is all just our way of skirting the news at hand all around us, right? We need a way to sidestep the terrible toll of each passing month. Let’s face it: We had another year of bad news. Some of it was very bad — turn-off-the-radio-so-the-kids-do-not-hear-about-it bad. I seem to do that once or so a day, lately. Drones. Drowning island nations. Mass surveillance. Pain pills and the rising tide of heroin overdose in their wake. Purdue funding the pain meeting and Coca-Cola funding the nutrition meeting and Lundbeck funding the mental-illness meeting.
And these are just the problems for polite company. We have dishonorable problems. Police shootings. School shootings. Attacks on Muslim people. Disregard for the fate of black men and women. Imprisonment for every problem. War, calls for war, and all the necessary games imitating war. Guns, sale of guns, tortured defenses of guns, procedural shows that glorify kill shots within the first 10 minutes, TV newsmagazines that can’t get enough of murder, and James Bond picking off bad guys with a high-powered rifle — it all suddenly seems to have lost its charm.
It’s the shooting, right, that’s the news of 2015. We haven’t felt enough pain quite yet to quit the scared and self-defeating thinking that has gotten us here, and it has taken all of the oxygen out of the room. We sit back and watch the continuous march of gun-enabled madness blamed on innocent madness, then race out to buy up more guns.
The crimes of our society have supplied us with an ongoing reminder about the failures of human mercy, not to mention the hope of mercy being showered upon us. “God Isn’t Going to Fix This,” as the New York Daily News chided all the politicians promising to keep the victims in their prayers. And they were right. This is all on us. These are our failures of kindness and action, and they are heavy. But if hearing it from the top would move these casualties of history toward change, I would be happy to ghostwrite the letter.
This will be my first holiday letter, it would say. The year has been a rough one. The kids are fighting over made-up problems, all the time. They remain distracted by their fears. But they have so much potential, and I love them more than words can say. Some of them become teachers. Some of them give to their church. Some of them laugh at themselves, reject temptation, find the courage to release themselves of their convictions and rise anew.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.