Do you like Christmas letters? I do. But I know a lot of people don’t. They see them as permission slips to brag about … well, everything. Family, jobs, pets, vacations—if something great happened, chances are it will be covered in the Christmas letter. The past couple years, I’ve seen fewer Christmas letters, and some say it’s due to social media. Because people share so much about their lives online, they don’t send letters. Now that I’m online, I realize it’s true. Keeping in touch is easier than ever before. But that doesn’t mean Christmas letters are any less fun to receive.
Ironically, the first Christmas cards were sent to avoid writing letters. In Europe, a man looked at his growing stack of correspondence and decided to create a generic response he could send to everyone. Not responding wasn’t an option; good manners required a reply. Thus the first Christmas card was born, appearing in the 1840s with the general greeting, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.” Christmas cards made it to the U.S. 35 years later, in 1875.
When did people start writing letters to accompany their holiday cards? I’m not sure, but I do know that The Atlantic was already poking fun of Christmas letters in 1954. According to the hilarious article “From Us to You,” every good Christmas letter starts with “well” as in “Well, it’s Christmas time again.” It also has lots of exclamation points and the word “Ha!” spread liberally throughout.
All jokes aside, I think a good Christmas letter is personal, revealing a fun detail or story about the writer or the family. It’s also written in a font that readers can see without a magnifying glass. Letter writers could take a cue from my students, who are famous for increasing the font size to meet page requirements. Most of all, Christmas letters should be fun, not a chore. If you don’t know where to begin, take a suggestion from Garrison Keillor, who said to begin a letter with the present moment: “I’m at ballet with my daughter, and the Waltz of the Snowflakes is blaring from the speakers in the studio … for the third week in a row.”
Keillor also said, “We shy persons need to write a letter now and then, or else we’ll dry up and blow away.” Even though Keillor was talking about personal letters, I think the same could be said for Christmas letters. They might be the only letters being written today—or at least the longest form of communication beyond a text or email. It’s good to share. So get out that stationery, and jot down a few lines. Someone might be waiting for a Christmas card or letter right now, and a hello will make all the difference in their holiday season.