Friday, December 9, 2011

The Family Christmas Letter: Your Annual Literary Masterwork

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it will be interesting to see if the family Christmas* letter--the impersonal kind that's printed in quantity and mailed with (or in place of) greeting cards--will begin to fade away as a tradition.

I hope not. Which may be surprising, coming from someone who has been known to refer to such letters as "Brag-o-Grams." Jokingly, of course. Usually.

I guess I should confess up front that I rarely write them. My husband and I lead a fairly quiet life and figure that those who are truly interested in the details pretty much know them already. Individual, personal letters take care of the rest--no need for a mass mailing.

The exception to this was the year we moved from the suburbs of Illinois to the mountains of Idaho. That year, it took a mass-produced letter to notify people of our new address, share photos of the place, and reassure loved ones that we hadn't completely taken leave of our senses. But for the most part, writing a mass-produced Christmas letter is one holiday task that I happily sidestep.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't enjoy receiving them, "Brag-o-Gram" remarks aside. Whether snail-mailed or e-mailed, mass-produced letters do make a great deal of sense for those of you with extensive families and wide, far-flung circles of friends--so many that trying to write personal letters would be tedious and wildly inefficient. Believe it or not, not everyone is on Facebook and Twitter. And for those with children and grandchildren who grow and change a great deal from year to year, annual letters are a great way to update people who don't see them regularly. Just be sure that your letter reads like a letter, not like a public relations puff piece or an annual report to shareholders.

Here, then, are a few highly subjective suggestions for writing a lively, fun-to-read, non-cringe-inducing Christmas letter. (Keep in mind that these are simply one reader's observations of what makes a good letter; as with most advice, take it or leave it as you wish.)

Include photos. Digital photography makes this easier than ever before, and the cliche is true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Be succinct. Try to fit everything onto one or two pages. Stick to the highlights and don't try to chronicle exactly what happened each month of the year.

Keep your audience in mind. The wider circle your letter reaches, the more general it needs to be. Details of a visit to "Mimi and Bobo" will mystify people outside your family, while "the kids enjoyed visiting their grandparents" will be understood by all. Also realize that if you include "insider" jokes without explanation, you've just assigned a segment of your audience to "outsider" status--not the warmest holiday feeling.

Share your happy news in a cheerful, matter-of-fact way. Be appropriately proud, but don't gush or exaggerate. The line between sharing and boasting is a fine one. You want the result to be "Please share in our happiness," not "Be impressed by what great parents we are" or "Be envious of my fabulous life."

Share your not-so-happy news, if you must, briefly and dispassionately. This goes for medical news. "I had gall-bladder surgery in August" is fine. "The doctors found a gall stone the size of a baseball" is not. "And here's a picture" breaks every rule of Christmas-letter etiquette there is, my earlier point about photos notwithstanding.

Make sure the news you share is your news. "We welcomed Aunt Cleta home from rehab. Sure hope third time's the charm" may not be news Aunt Cleta wants shared with the world.

Write naturally, as if you were writing to a friend. After all, you are!(If they're not friends, why are you sending them a letter?) Use words you would normally use. If you're naturally funny, be funny. If you're naturally no-nonsense, be no-nonsense. Let your own voice shine through. That's the voice your family and friends want to hear.

Proofread for spelling and grammar. No, you're not being graded, and it's not the end of the world if you misspell a word. Still, it's easier on your reader, and reflects nicely on you, if you use proper spelling and punctuation.

For more great tips on writing Christmas letters, visit And have yourself a merry little writing session!

*(Substitute late-year observance of your choice.)


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I forgot to mention that it's really nice to hand-write a line or two at the end of the letter, to give it that personal touch. Even just a quick "thinking of you" note, using the person's name, warms the heart of the receiver.

Jessie Gunderson said...

Oh dear, mine breaks a bunch of the "rules". ;) Ha! Great post. I too wonder at how this will change. We've already gone from a print letter to an email (though I still print it for Grandma and some others). We don't really break too many rules. I was just kidding but it is long and goofy and maybe a bit dangerous to read our annual publication. ;)

Paul Schwerdt said...


I just have to share this with you.

It's from a local songwriter in Southern California, Trish Lester. The song is on her first CD, and appropriately enough, the song is titled "Christmas Letter." I hope you enjoy it while it shamefully breaks the rules you suggested. - Paul Schwerdt, Lancaster, CA -