Holiday letters occupy a position just below fruitcake on the top ten list of Things to Dampen the Holiday Spirit.
This need not be so.
While fruitcakes are pretty much victims of their own cloying recipe of heavy and sweet ingredients, you have complete control over what goes in your holiday letter. Really, you do.
Each year we receive a few dozen holiday letters. Some have me yawning with boredom or rolling my eyes with incredulity by the second sentence. Others have moved me to tears, or had me eagerly reading them out loud to other family members.
Here are a few tips for creating letters that fall into the second group:
1. Write for your recipients, not for the senders. If two of your kids made the dean’s list and one was in juvenile court three times last year, don’t feel you need to go into detail about any of it, or invent something for the black sheep to balance out the other kids’ accolades. “Janie is a junior at Oregon State, Pete is in his freshman year at Reed, and Susie is in her last year of high school. We look forward to having the whole family together for the holidays in Aspen,” is just fine to keep old neighbors and college friends up-to-date (many of them can’t remember the kids’ names, anyway).
2. Keep it short, and focused. While you will probably start by drawing up a list of the key things that happened to your family during the year, select just two or three to highlight in the letter. Professional and scholastic achievements can be boring and off-putting. Travel and hobbies are almost always a better choice, as they give people not only news about what you’ve been doing but an insight into another region or field of interest.
3. Make it clear who’s writing the letter — that being you. It’s difficult and a bit weird to have everyone in the family referred to in the third person as if a reporter were profiling your family. And it’s even weirder to use “we” and then try to talk about things you did as individuals. Don’t go there. It really is OK to begin the letter “Elizabeth and I opened a new bookstore in July…” and at the end sign it “Frank and Elizabeth.” People will get it. (When I include stories from other family members describing their activities in first person, I set their words off from the body of the letter as indented paragraphs.)
4. Talk briefly about why you’re writing the letter. “It’s wonderful to take a few minutes to reflect about the year and share some highlights with friends,” is the type of opening you’re looking for. Don’t apologize. If you feel compelled to open with something like “We hate to bore you all with another long, stilted holiday missive,” you shouldn’t be writing one.
5. Drop names. Not names of famous people, but names of mutual friends and acquaintances. This is a even good time to gossip, as long as you keep it positive. “We ran into Mark and Sandy Connors, our old neighbors from Denver, and discovered Mark left his job at Microsoft and is playing with a heavy metal group. Check out his new album…” This makes your letter a valuable source of genuine news, not just a brag sheet.
5. Keep in mind that the holiday letter isn’t meant to be sent to everyone. Send holiday letters to people you see once a year (or less often) and with whom you genuinely like to keep in touch. Don’t send personal holidays letters to people who are (or were) purely business associates. As far as the people you see on a regular basis — they know this stuff anyway.
6. What about the people only one of you knows? Our increasingly mobile society, significant otherships, late marriages, and re-marriages, mean that quite a few people on your holiday list know one member of a couple extremely well and the other member hardly at all. These people are rarely ideal recipients for the holiday letter. The spouse or partner who knows the person should write a personal note instead, or put a personal note at the foot of the letter.
I’ll be the first to admit that while some of my holiday letters have been great, other years they have been merely pro forma. I can always use tips and inspiration. Please feel free to add your comments and ideas!