Before there was Facebook’s NewsFeed, there were annual Christmas letters.
Once a year, it becomes socially acceptable for families to bombard hundreds of people across America with veritable tomes of their carefully spun triumphs and tragedies, successes and scandals.
I love them.
After years of poring over every one that comes to our mailbox, I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur. I’m working on the mathematical formula that determines the ratio of number of kids to length of letter. It’s not what you’d think—early studies conclude that the more kids in the family, the more likely the writer-parent gives up on drafting an update and instead sends out photo cards sometime in mid-January.
I love these photos, too. Since I was born, we’ve lived in five different states, and we still keep in touch with people from all of them. For a period of about three years, my sister and I waited impatiently for the photo card to arrive from a certain family of attractive sons. These were pre-Facebook days, so we had to wait a full year before we could see the progression of handsomeness in each of them. We were never disappointed.
Which is a major reason why I feel a certain sense of veto power when it comes time to choose the family picture that will accompany our humble, succinct, and hilarious letter. I don’t want to disappoint a fan with a photo that suggests I’ve developed a double chin or put on eighty pounds, all because of a poorly-chosen angle. It’s vain—I don’t deny it—but that’s one of the main characteristics of a Christmas letter.
One of the most useful functions of a Christmas letter is that it serves as the common folks’ press conference. It’s a chance to set the record straight, to let others know they know that others know their business, to State an Official Account and Proclaim an Official Opinion. Some parents allude to their child’s “rough patch” or “troubled times” without delving into any personal detail. Others take a no-nonsense approach: Johnny got arrested for selling drugs. He’s doing time. We still love him.
One year, though, one family took their paper press conference to new extremes of discomfort. They told of the phone call they received from a crying son and his hysterical girlfriend, who confessed to having succumbed to the temptations of the flesh and engaging in premarital intercourse the night before. And sure enough, a few weeks later the girlfriend discovered she was pregnant. The letter explained that the wedding would be in a few months, and the baby would be arriving a few months after that.
I remember gingerly lifting the letter with the tips of my thumb and forefinger and setting it down as far from myself as I could reach. In the past I’d been delightedly shocked at the length of some families’ letters, or cynically mesmerized by the tedious month-by-month timeline others’ felt sure would enrapture the multitudes. But to this day, that letter stands out as the first and only time I’ve ever felt horror and embarrassment as the predominant emotions after reading a Christmas Card Breaking News Update.