Bragging Christmas letters: We have all gotten them. You may have
sent them. Jason's soccer team led the division. Tiffany nailed the
lead in the term play, made the honor roll, again,
and was elected homecoming queen. Bill got a promotion and a raise.
Madge is quite busy chairing three community charities.
They are all amazed at how another year has flown by, too.
Well, shucks; if Marie made the Dean's list at MIT while Donny
got off with a strict warning and 200 hours of community service for
his DUI, which one are you going to write about? Bragging is
understandable, but that doesn't mean you should do it.
Some people have a hard time thinking of things to write, and some
of us have a hard time stopping, once we get started. This page is for
you folks in the first group. It has some suggestions and some links
to pages of examples, good and bad, collected from people like you.
(I'm always open to contributions.)
A picture of you with an eagle on your head is
always a way to add visual interest to a
Christmas letter. (Me in Peru, 2008.)
Keep it short. One page in a 10-point font, a page and a half (or one page
of legal-size) if you use a 12-point font for easy reading. Most people are
going to get 30 or 40 newsletters, and they have cookies to bake.
Keep it readable. Some of your audience uses bifocals. Put a blank line
between paragraphs. Use two columns, if you are comfortable with the column
commands in your word processor. Consider using a 12-point font.
Speaking of fonts, you can usually tell when someone gets a computer
for the first time, because they use 18 different fonts. The pros use
one font. Look at first-class magazines - National Geographic or Smithsonian,
for instance. They use
italics for emphasis, but it is just one font.
Keep it light. The holidays are supposed to be happy. Concentrate on the
good things that happened to you and your family. There are exceptions.
The year my grandparents died (Example 02)
I wrote about some fond memories we shared, not about the last stages of
cancer. Try to avoid illness, infection and injury.
Keep it free of jargon related to specific careers. Amy E. of
Bloomington, Indiana writes: "My husband used to be a radio announcer.
One year he took over writing the Christmas letter because he didn't
feel I was being specific enough. He discussed afternoon drive, "cume"
numbers, the AC format, and an unbelievable number of other references
to the radio industry that only a fellow announcer would understand."
Don't try to get a whole year into a page. Focus on a couple of high
points. Vacations, for instance, unless you took a first class
cruise around the world, which would be bragging. You can slip the
best game of golf you played all year in here and sort of brag a little.
Don't use your letter as a catalog for a home-based business, even if
Mary Kay Cosmetics, Amway or Septic Tank Plus has changed
Identify people who aren't you and your spouse; "our son's partner
Matilda" or "grandson Ralph".
All right, you can brag once, but follow it with
something that proves you don't think you're better than everyone
else. "Margaret won Nobel prizes in Medicine and Literature, but
still can't seem to keep her room picked up."
You should mention births, deaths, marriages and moves, so that
the old college room mate who finally makes it out to your part of the
country for a visit knows your wife's name and how many kids you have.
Summarize your children for people who haven't heard from you since
last year. Mention their ages, sizes, grade in school and interests.
If you write "John is a senior this year and set to graduate in June",
the graduation announcements he sends in May won't come as quite such a
shock to people who last saw him when he was 12. Throw in a picture of
the family, too; a picture is worth a thousand words.
What is the best book you've read all year? Some of the people you
write to may share your interest in murder mysteries, armchair
travelogues, or books to read to the kids.
Speaking of reading, the easiest way to improve your own writing is to
read good writers. There are lots of people writing short, light pieces
in the US today. I read Dave Berry even before I look at the funnies every
Sunday morning. I also like Garrison Keillor, Roy Blount Junior and Tim
Cahill. Make a trip to your library or used book store in October, spend a
couple of evenings reading instead of watching TV, and swipe some ideas.
Cute things the kids have said are always popular; it shows they
are growing and it isn't bragging.
Write about your outside interests; your hobby, pastime, recreational activity.
Don't write about taking first place in a tournament, however; write about
something most people don't know about it but might find interesting. The
same for your job.
If you live in an unusual place or have an unusual job, write about it. That
is, unusual compared to most of your list. If you moved to a cattle ranch
in Arizona, while most of the people you send Christmas letters to are still
accountants back home in New York, a description of how you spent an afternoon
mending fence would be interesting. If all of your friends are also cattle
ranchers in Arizona, it wouldn't be that interesting.
Memorable meals, particularly if you cooked them yourself and discovered
something, are interesting without bragging too much. "We started putting
oak scraps from Ed's woodshop on the coals when we barbecued salmon . . ."
What I call "Hints from Heloise"; if you've found a trick to make life easier
that others can use. My mother uses the little square plastic fastener from
bread bags to hold her place in the masking tape, instead of folding the end
over. I put my car keys on the pile of outgoing mail in the evening, so I
can't forget to take it to the mailbox the next morning. (Or, more accurately,
so when I DO forget, I can't start the car until I go back and get it.)
If, sadly, you are house-bound, the children have moved away and
you haven't read any great books, you don't have to write about this year's
aches and pains. Write about Christmas when you were a child, or how you met
your spouse, or your funniest date in high school. "Not much happened this
year. Christmas always reminds me of the time during the depression when we
made ornaments out of tin foil. . .". Your grandchildren will have a glimpse
of real history, and your friends will nod in pleasant agreement, remembering
their own experiences. Don't try to cram 80 years into one page. Pick an
incident or season and write about it in enough detail people will know what
it was like. My
Biography Questions page has some specific
questions to answer, if you can't think of anything.
Know when to quit. If they don't send you a card or newsletter for
three years, stop sending them one. You can tell yourself they are
too busy to write, but you're fooling yourself, and they are wondering
how long it will take you to take the hint. Sometimes it's like driving
a dull nail through a thick plank.
If you summarize a year, save a copy. Vera C. of Pennsylvania writes
"I have been doing this for 50 years. Two years ago I made copies of all
the letters, put them in binders, and sent them to my adult children.
My grandchildren enjoyed reading the antics of their parents as they grew
up, and these letters brought back memories and served as a history of
our family to the children."
Examples From Me
Three Short Examples from my own newsletters.
These excerpts illustrate points from the "Specific Suggestions" list.
These next, full-length examples aren't the finest examples in the
world. They are real, however, and they show that I practice what I preach;
light anecdotes, updates on the kids, the best bird I've seen (birdwatching
is one of my hobbies), best book I've read and some self-deprecating humor.
You'll notice I overuse semi-colons, a problem I've struggled with since high
school. I used old letters to protect our children's privacy. They are young
adults now, and Kenneth, who comes down with leukemia in example 9, is
Example 01: A practical joke involving
cow bones. I help right a Hobie Cat.
Example 02: My grandparents die. We
visit Los Angeles.
Example 03: We visit England. Our daughter
misses death by six inches.
Example 04: Our barn swallows get mites.
The Berlin wall falls.
Example 05: Buying hubcaps, visiting Iowa, and
some innocent dogs saddled with horrible puns.
Example 06: I set a personal record for taking
a picture of a group of children.
Felicity Prentice has her kids taking Swedish
lessons, for the Nobel awards ceremony. She is gracious: "do feel free to bask
in the glow of our glory". This one takes being pretentious to new and hilarious