Family Christmas Newsletters: Confessions and Unsolicited Tips

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed her perfectly lovely husband and cat to make this and win at Christmas cards.

My cousin, Rachel, composed and photographed her perfectly lovely husband and cat to make this and win at Christmas cards.

The year I moved house, finished construction on our basement, gestated and started raising my fifth son, I didn’t get much writing done.  The only thing I published that year was a Christmas newsletter all about my immediate family.

Some people hate reading letters like these.  I know that.  I don’t send them to everyone – like the person who once soundly told me off for “always bragging.”  He gets an empty card with a hand-scrawled inscription and just as much love as everyone else.  The letters aren’t meant to please me but the people on my mailing list — good will toward men, and all that.  I hope anyone who isn’t made merry by my letter throws it in a snowbank on the way home from the mailbox.

For letter-writers, there are lots of ways to approach the family Christmas newsletter.  An artsy friend of mine wrote hers as an acrostic poem.  My Manga-loving sister-in-law once included an original, hand-drawn cartoon in hers.  I have a family of cousins who usually aim for the absurd – cats and paganism and stuff.  And I have a friend from a town called Spring Coulee who doesn’t use any gimmicks but always manages to dash off a letter that’s hilarious and real and totally charming.

Don’t misunderstand.  I like conventional Christmas letters too — the blessing-counting, the press releases, the shine-a-grams.  If I stopped getting them, I’d be very sad.  I love them.  But I love the wacky letters.

To write, mail, or post either kind of letter is to run the hazard of spreading Christmas cringing along with Christmas cheer.  It takes guts to attempt a holiday year-in-review letter.  Sometimes, we all get it wrong.  With my husband’s job, I find it hard to write a letter without the words “rape” or “murder” and there might be people on my list who dread reading about it.

Still, here’s a list from imperfect, sometimes-offensive me sharing my personal preferences for Christmas newsletters — some tips on how to keep me smiling all the way to the “Happy New Year” at the end.

1)      Good News, Bad News – We’ve all got good news and bad news.  A letter that’s nothing but good news is not going to be seen as dishonest or deceptive.  We should all know enough about the human condition to be able to assume that the year had some crud in it that didn’t make it into the letter.  Bad news shouldn’t come from an ink-jet.  It’s for the hand-written note on the inside of the card for people we only communicate with through Christmas cards – and there aren’t many people like that anymore.

Often, bad news is embarrassing for the people involved.  That makes it embarrassing for readers too — like witnessing a public shaming.  It’s one thing to say the cat ran away or someone broke her arm in a heroic feat of sports.  It’s another thing to report that someone’s weight is out of control or that he has a court-date.  If telling bad news isn’t necessary, leave it out.  If letter-writers can spin bad news with the right kind of humor or hope or, if it’s already well-known, nod to it gently and obliquely, they might get away with sharing it.  Get an editor to confirm if this has been done successfully.  And when in doubt, leave it out.  For the love of all that is holidays, leave it out.

2)      Keep it short.  Christmas letters are an exercise in pith.  Don’t waste space waxing lyrical about snowflakes or telling readers how every bit of news should make us feel.  We can assume someone was happy about finishing the marathon without being told.  If we’re the kind of people who sat down to read the letter in the first place, we’re probably the kind of people who can empathize between the lines.

3)      Avoid the hallmarks of bragging.  Apparently, I haven’t been very good at this.  But may I suggest avoiding the braggiest of all brag words: proud.  For some people – and we can never be sure for whom – the word proud can’t be separated from implications of feeling superior.  Even if we are feeling this way, we shouldn’t admit it in the Christmas letter.  As we write about the best parts of our lives, we’ll probably find that the word “pleased” serves just as well as “proud” anyway.  It expresses all the happiness we’ve felt without running the risk of offending readers prone to feeling oppressed by other people’s good fortune.

4)      Make sure the news we share is rightfully ours.  This is about more than respecting privacy.  Even within families, there’s a hierarchy of ownership over news.  If my sister finds out the sex of her unborn baby, it certainly affects me as the baby’s aunt but I can’t mention it in my newsletter until my sister has had a chance to tell everyone first.  She’s closer to the news so her claim on it supersedes mine and I defer to her on how it’s spread.  The newsletter should be about our own small world where we are the experts and owners of everything.

5)      Avoid predictions.  It might be hard for readers to remember what’s actually come to pass and what we only hoped would happen.  It’s going to be awkward next year when we have to answer to past unfulfilled predictions and “un-tell” the good news we thought we’d be sharing.

6)      Illustrate.  Don’t use lists of vague adjectives to express something that can be told with an example or quick anecdote.  All journalism — including amateur holiday journalism — is essentially storytelling.  Good reporting makes the letter memorable and gives the people in it the character they deserve.  Concrete experiences and direct quotes make for a good newspaper and a good family Christmas newsletter.

I could add something like “be yourself” but, really, that can’t be helped.  Maybe a better parting idea would be that we might enjoy our letters more if they read like something we would like to receive ourselves.  If it’s wacky, so be it.  If it’s stodgy, that’s fine too.  People on our mailing lists already love us.  They’ll forgive us a few cringes.  And we’ll forgive them too.

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