By Louise Ure
They all start the same way. “Dear” and then a blank space with my name written in, in a nun-taught cursive style I haven’t seen since my parochial school days. What’s up with that? Even Nancy Pelosi has figured out how to send me a group letter with my name included in the typed salutation. But, no. I get Dear Blank, or worse, Dear Friends, as if we are too numerous and homogenous to bother remembering our individual identities.
Their popularity has waxed and waned over the years, but they never entirely go away. The Dreaded Christmas Letters.
Most of the ones I receive are from hometown and high school friends. Only three come from fellow writers. But even the writers seem to forget all the basic rules of social communication and good storytelling in their oeuvres.
My oldest Christmas Letter-correspondent’s annual missive reads like a travelogue. “We spent April in Siena (I dream of that pasta sometimes!) and May with the folks at Big Bear Lake so we sure needed that getaway for just the two of us at the house in Cabo to recuperate.” Feh. Does she even consider that some of us haven’t left our zip code for the last nine months?
If they have kids, no feat or skill is too small to mention. Little Scottie learned to read by his first birthday and he’s the darling of his pre-kindergarten soccer team. Cassidy might have scored 749 on the SATs, but if not, her ballet teacher’s comment that “she’s the next Maria Tallchief!” will feature prominently. The ne’er-do-well 26-year old who still lives with his parents and thought a job at McDonald’s was beneath him is “acting as the DJ at local parties and wowing the girls with his bright blue eyes.” I hope he gets crabs.
Then there are the organ recitals. “Myrna’s blood count continues read like an IQ score.” “Tom threw his back out in May and I swear, between the heat packs and muscle relaxants, we’re keeping Walgreens in business!” When they start to describe bowel movements, I quit.
Then there are the … what shall I call them … the creative types. The ones who have rewritten The Night Before Christmas to include the names of all their children and pets and have somehow managed to get the husband’s promotion at B of A to scan into the proper meter as well. The ones who rhyme quatrains divided by what they did each month.
And the pictures! Have you ever seen a more toothsome group? I swear, every one of my Christmas Letter pals is related to a dentist.
Once, just one, I’d like to get a Christmas letter that reflected the reality of life. Or even a Christmas letter that included one of the following sentences:
- “Maggie dipped a toe into the world of heroin this year … not a lot, you understand, just experimenting … but the police didn’t see it that way.”
- “Fido had a litter of seven puppies we couldn’t find homes for and the cat got hit chasing a car. Isn’t life supposed to go the other way around?”
- “We were so proud to see Jake turn sixteen and get his driver’s license. And the new Prius we bought after Jake crashed the old Chevy gets much better mileage. I’ll bet we’re saving $200 a month, if you don’t include the new car payments.”
- “Who knew you couldn’t stuff a cold turkey with hot dressing? Fortunately, my mother-in-law was the only one whose food poisoning required overnight hospitalization.”
- “We took our vacation at my folks house this year. Well, not so much vacation as we moved in there. Please note the new address on the envelope! I never realized how nice their basement was when I was growing up. Back then we just thought of it as a place to store old furniture.”
It’s not that I wish bad news on my friends; I just want their Christmas Letters to sound like non-fiction instead of fantasy. And I want to feel like my life is maybe not so removed from the norm out there.
Tell you what. Next year don’t bother writing my name in by hand. Just leave it Dear Blank. That’s closer to how I’m usually feeling as the end of the year rolls around anyway.
Or better yet, send me one of those notes like Tim Robbins left under the wall for Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption: “Louise, if you’re reading this note then I know you made it through the year. I’ve done what I told you I’d do; I made it to that town I dreamed about. Pack up Bruce and the dog and come join me. I’ll have the margaritas waiting.”
Merry Christmas to you all! And here’s my Christmas present to all the writers here: Charles Dickens’ handwritten revisions to A Christmas Carol. It’s so nice to see that even he had the never-ending revision bug.
P.S. Don’t believe the snarky, Grinch-like tone of this post. I ‘m looking forward to a quiet, peaceful and loving Christmas season and hope the same for all of you, even the Christmas Letter-writers.
Dear <field 1>,
I hope this holiday season finds you well. 2009 has been such a unique and interesting year. It started on New Year’s day when Susan and I had magnificent sex. Though she is nearly 60 now, she’s fit and tight and a real dynamo in bed. She also wears the cutest oversized sunglasses you’ve ever seen. Our sex was the best ever, except if you include every single time other than that.
When we got done, we talked about how I’m a private investigator because I miss having a family and all the violence helps me to satisfy that need in my life. Then we went had magnificent sex again, the best ever, because Susan is so lithe. Except that I had to put the dog out first, because Susan wouldn’t do it in front of the baby. Baby my ass, that dog is like 19 years old now.
When we finished having magnificent sex, the best ever, I went downstairs and surveyed Susan’s cupboards. I had to improvise a little bit. That she only had half a can of diet Coke, a Chicklet, half a box of stale Triscuits, and some peanut butter was unfair–to the Coke, Chicklet, Triscuits, and peanut butter. I made a reduction out of the peanut butter and Coke, putting in the Triscuit for flavoring, and served it over the Triscuits. Susan was so enraptured with my culinary prowess, that we went upstairs and had magnificent sex again. The best ever.
Hawk came over with some overpriced champagne and we watched football while he nibbled on Triscuits. He drank fourteen bottles, but the alcohol really didn’t seem to affect him very much.
After he left, Susan and I went upstairs and had sex again. It was magnificent, the best ever.
Then, while she read a book about doctor stuff, I got to work on this letter. Did you know you can use something called Word and make a mail merge so you can write one letter to people and just substitute the names? Of course you’re more important than that <field 1>, so I would never do that to you.
I hate being computer illiterate. But once I got over beating my computers up, they’re really quite useful. Susan says that I’m now an intelligent thug.
I have to run now. Susan is calling. Time for some magnificent sex. The best ever.
Okay Chris – that was hilarious. I’m one of those Christmas Letter writers – maybe I should write one like that next year?
And Louise, I sure hope my Christmas Letters (which I don’t address at all, except with "Merry Christmas All") aren’t as bad as the ones you’ve apparently gotten. I tried to NOT write them, but some people apparently enjoyed reading them, so I continued. I figure if someone received it and didn’t want to read it, they could throw it out. I do sign each one, but other than that, it’s not personalized in any way.
I’m just kidding. I confess that I fully expect those Christmas letters to be sanitized and savor those awkward gems that find their way in. I’d love to quote them verbatim, but you never know who’s reading my comments on Murderati. We gave up on trying to do anything REAL for our holiday communications. This year I even paid the printing company to do the envelopes and mailing for us. I do, however, put some time into selecting a few pictures of us with our dog. Some people think we’re dopes for considering ourselves family. Others see our cards as ironic commentary on those ubiquitous, matchy-match family pictures. I’ll never tell.
Louise, Loved the post and congratulations on finding your inner Scrooge. We all need to give him a voice and let out a few "Bah Humbugs!". Once it’s out, we can then follow old Ebeneezer and find our way back to the real spirit of Christmas.
Is it my own sadness I’m detecting, or a bit of yours as well, Louise? Your post brings many annual letters to mind… the people who can’t pick up the phone and call to actually talk to you, the people who never send you a quick e-mail to ask how things or going. I used to have a lot of friends, and now it feels like I have a lot of distant acquaintances who paint a rosy picture for me once a year and all I feel now is disconnected from their lives.
Could they pick up the phone and call if they’d lost their job? Or were having problems with their child? Could I do the same with them?
I think that’s what these letters symbolize. A lot of our relationships are superficial. A lot of us get more meaningful contact and support via blogs than we experience with the flesh and blood friends and family over the years.
You’ve made me glad I haven’t attempted any such trivial communication with anyone in years. This year, I haven’t made out a single Christmas card, and somehow (in the midst of much stress and turmoil these days) that seems more honest and any trivial sentiment I could have signed a card with.
Chris, the first commenter and a real winner! Why didn’t I think to ask you guys to write a Christmas letter in the voice of your favorite crime fiction character? Damn. A good opportunity missed. But you nailed Mr. Parker and his lissome Susan.
Stacy, I have full confidence that your Christmas letters are better than the ones I’m getting. I’ll bet they come from the heart.
Alafair, that card with the dog is much more up my alley. And yes, I sanitized a few details here — a very few — in hopes that my correspondent=friends don’t see themselves in my snarkiness.
I don’t mind Christmas letters as long as they’re short and not about the tales and travels of extended family members whom I’ve never met. What I don’t like is cards with signatures stamped by the printer. That seems a bit impersonal to me.
Vicky, I like the attitude. Let you Scrooge flag fly and then get down to the serious good time of Christmas. I’m working on it.
Sandra, I sure understand those once-a-year friends. The people I get Christmas letters from are not those I’d call if I was down and needed a hand. Those folks — care-givers in all senses of the word — are with me every day. I hope you have them around you, too.
I’ve come to hate these letters. It’s nice to actually keep up with people instead of just getting a card, but the letters have become as impersonal as the cards. When I first started to use word processing software, I used to customize the letter for different groups of friends. No point telling someone I just saw last week what happened two weeks ago, or of mentioning a friend of mine this person has never heard of, right? That got to be a nuisance, so I hit on something different: the Christmas poem.
Now I write a peom about a page long and send it to everyone. Even if the news is old to them, they seem to enjoy the presentation. (One year I tried something different and sent my annual letter in the form of a story and caught hell from my relatives who insisted on a poem in future years.)
So I guess what I do is the same, but different. My wife now hand makes all our cards. Everybody gets the same one, but at least it didn’t come out of a box.
I have no friends, so I’ll write to you. I have you and some clothes. I’ll throw the clothes out and put the you in holder in the bathroom at the hotel. Along the way, I’ll find something really messed up, drink an awful lot of coffee (which won’t be as good as it was in the Army), ally with a winsome, earnest woman, and have sex. My sex won’t be quite as good as Spenser’s but we’ll get to do it outside or in a cave or wherever things seem the most desperate. Then I will shoot a mess of people and blow up some other people and strike a blow for all that is good and right.
And then I will move on.
You and me.
Merry Christmas, toothbrush.
Patty, I still like cards of all kinds, even if most of them I get are from my dentist and insurance guy.
Dana, I’ll bet your poems are a hoot. And handmade cards? That’s the best ever.
There’s a disgustingly, offensively hilarious parody of such Christmas letters by David Sedaris called "Season’s Greetings to Friends and Family!!!" Worth looking up. There’s an audio version read by Julia Sweeney here:
Chris, you’ve outdone yourself. If Lee is checking in on the blog I hope he relishes this finest effort at fan fiction. Merry Christmas, toothbrush!
Derek, that’s a howl. Count on David Sedaris to provide the funniest holiday letter ever.
What a great post to wake up to!
Louise, you crack me up. I so rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading anything, but you had me waking up the kids.
Thanks for that.
Chris Hamilton, you are hilarious. Thanks to you and to Louise for inspiring all that.
I love Christmas letters, even the bad ones. They make me wish I could ever get it together to write one, honest, dishonest, or otherwise.
Happy to oblige, Stephen. Laughter is indeed the best medicine.
And Alex, if you were to write a Christmas letter I have a feeling it would read like a sex manual. Fear of Flying meets Rudolph the Red-Nosed Etc.
I laughed hard. And I though about the Sedaris piece, too.
Mum shared with me the other day her disdain for a multitude of newsletters. She had very similar points to yours Louise. Then she mentioned that she sent out an email to a couple of friends describing our year. For some reason this comment than prompted a memory of her at teachers college where she apparently came third out of 160 people for english. I think somehow that means how I’m doing at university is in there somewhere….slightly worrying what spin she’s put on it. Then however she reminisced about how well she did in French…she apparently nailed the translation and turned a poem into prose or vice a versa as she had so much time left over…I’m sitting there drinking my tea wondering where this is going as there is always a twist with my Mum .
She doesn’t disappoint. She then tells me she didn’t do so well with Art. Apparently they had a topic of ‘Lunch’ as a theme and Mum painted a big pot with people going in, and other’s sitting about munching. The supervisor looked at her apparently and went, ‘Miss Hammer you do have a disturbing turn of mind’ and walked off.
I am currently not game to see a copy of how she sees this year.
With the advent of Facebook, the usual Christmas letter really has become a glossing over of the high points of the year. But so many of my friedns and family aren’t on Facebook, and complain vociferously when we don’t send a letter, that I broke down and did one this year. It was sanitized for everyone’s protection.
I have to admit, I do enjoy getting the Christmas letters. It’s amazing to me how open people are about their most personal problems. What Sandra said is interesting – if you are close enough to share intimate details, why do you only do it once a year, in such an impersonal way?
What I don’t get are the pictures of the kids – sans parents. Are they orphans? Who do they belong to? At least pop yourself in there – don’t we all want to see how we’re aging?
What, JD, no Redneck Christmas letter? It would have to include something about a three-legged dog named Lucky.
Catherine, I think your mother is a genius. But her art project reminds me of a painting I have here at the house. It’s a watercolor of a ovely, ornate place setting with a naked body curled up in the soup bowl. It’s called "Think of all the starving people in China."
JT, I’d like to read your Christmas letter. Or maybe not. I’d be jealous by how much you got done. And those kids’ pictures? I’m with you. There’s something Dorian Gray about seeing my old friends’ faces in newer vessels.
What, JD, no Redneck Christmas letter? It would have to include something about a three-legged dog named Lucky.
See the last part of tomorrow’s post. Not exactly the same thing, but close.
I’m with JT on the kids.
The ones that baffle me are the letters we get from people we do not know. Not at all. No clue. Long letters, photos of the family, and they are addressed to us. I have asked everyone I know if these are long lost cousins, but nope, no one claims them. But every year, we’ll get their letter, catching us up on their lives. I don’t have the heart to tell them I have no clue who they are.
Louise, loved the post. Chris, you cracked me up–perfect Spenser letter.
If you have kids, you know the answer to JT’s picture query. After getting them all the stuff they need for school, teachers, activities, and then subsidizing Santa, there’s not enough money left for a picture of four. So you get the two kids. Mom and dad are standing outside the picture wearing clothes from 1993.
When we used to send out holiday letters, we did use the kids . . . just the kids . . . because we’re always the ones taking the pictures and we were too cheap to have them professionally taken.
Nowadays, I try to write personal letters or notes to friends and leave it at that.
Like you, Louise, I find myself tired of the totally perky letters though.
If I started one today it would read: "Just a short note . . . I’m on my way to get a root canal."
JD, waiting for your Wednesday Redneck blog post gives me something grand to anticipate this week. Hurrah!
Toni, you’ve got to do something with these forgotten folks. Maybe write them back and say, "Since we’ve been so close all these years through your Christmas letters, I hope you won’t think I’m too forward for listing you as a co-signer on the car we just bought." That should bring them out of the woodwork.
Chris and Pari, you sound like the same parents/family … photo of two, with Mom and Dad grinning from behind the camera. That’s probably better than having the photo taken after your root canal, Pari. What a holiday present!
Well, the pain is about equivalent to childbirth right now. So the holiday present is the fact that the endodontist could get me in the same day I saw my dentist.
With luck, I won’t feel like someone has stuck a red hot brand in my jaw after this afternoon.
I’m so sorry, Pari! Think pumpkin or cranberry smoothies for dinner.
Louise I love that your picture is a watercolour. Something about the delicacy of that medium adds to the darkness of that subject. Oils in some old dutch master style would of been too obvious.
Similarly, I like that in the era that Mum was doing all this, she was also boarding with the Nuns. She says even though she and her friends paid board they were treated like reform school girls…She was also gadding about Brisbane QLD in white gloves and a hat (obviously thinking dark thoughts).
We were going to send out a holiday letter our first year with a baby in the house. I wrote the draft, Chris yelled that we couldn’t send it out. I guess it was a little too real. I pulled a portion of it for you:
"We love the new house and I suck at decorating – and babyproofing. It would easier to proof the baby than the house. I don’t know why that couldn’t be an option. Just imagine the business I build of baby clothes made out of bubblewrap so that little bundle wouldn’t get a boo-boo. Of course the entire issue of suffocation comes into play so I guess that would have to be figured out.
Case in point – we can’t find a babygate to fit at the top of the stairs. We can have one made but I caclulated the cost of that is about the same as 2.3 trips to the emergency room. I think I’m ahead with the emergency room. After all, if my kid can’t figure out how to properly go down the stairs after the second fall, I’ve got bigger problems.
We’re still learning a lot about parenting. Not so much which end is up but what the hell is with flame retardent pajamas for babies anyway? It’s unlikely I’m putting her down for a nap next to a bonfire and the pj’s didn’t come with a pack of Camels and a lighter. I say there is an uptight bureaucrat somewhere with a flame retardent tag up his….
God help us all now that I have 3 kids and what that letter would sound like now!
Catherine, I love that ever-so-perfect image of your Mum in white gloves and hat!
And Sylvia, as usual, you make me laugh so much that I forget my middle name. Could you please write a whole book just like that Christmas letter?
Pari, sorry about your dental woes.
JT, hope you’re feeling better.
Sure Louise. A whole book just like that Christmas letter. Yes, will add to my 2010 to-do list. Sure, yep, uh huh. gotcha.
"Merry Christmas, toothbrush." LOL! Chris, that was hysterical. Though I doubt Reacher takes note of holidays.
Louise, I feel the same way about those letters. I have to wonder how much of that stuff is purely made up. I mean, c’mon, I have kids. The most disturbing ones come with a group photo of complete strangers. So I call my mom and ask, "Who the heck are all these people?" She sighs heavily, with exaggerated patience, “Those are your cousins, dear. And their children. And grandchildren.” Oh God, my cousins have grandchildren? “If you’d come home more often you might recognize them.” I have something like 35 first cousins. I don’t care how often I come home, I’m never going to recognize all of them.
A couple years ago I wrote a post on a group blog speculating about what I’d say if I were to write a Christmas Letter of my own and pretty much concluding there was no way in hell I could tell the truth (I’d give you the link to it but, um, well, we kind of broke the blog and had to decamp and set up shop elsewhere).
Here is a brief excerpt, just for you:
This is going to stir things up and add some excitement to my life, I can already tell. Probably my mom’s life as well. I’d better get busy, thinking up more stuff to write, so I can send these things off in the mail.
Christmas will be here before you know it.
Merry Christmas, Louise. I hope yours is filled with many moments of peaceful contentment and that you spend it with people you love.
And Pari, OUCH! Root canals are much less of an ordeal than they used to be. Still. Hope they gave you really really nice drugs. 😉
Sylvia, if you wrote down your stories instead of telling them, you’d be done by now. (And I’m SO good at giving advice.)
BCB, I adore your made up Christmas letter. Mine would start, "I can’t believe how easy it was to lose the first thirty pounds!" And I’d use a stand in for the photo.
ha ha ha ha ha ha.
If I hadn’t started writing Christmas letters in 1995, I probably wouldn’t have started writing magazine articles, which led to newspaper articles, which led to my first book, a murder mystery. After all, my favorite cousin-in-law and a good friend both told me, "I love your Christmas letters. You need to write a book." How could I disappoint them?
I loved your post. Getting ANYTHING from Nancy Pelosi would have Christmas disappear for me. So I am so happy you are still UP enough to write. I love your new book. I am a recovering Liar.