Christmas letters offer connection in a distant digital world
An old-school Christmas letter can bridge the chasm between here and there, then and now. It can be held in someone's hand, when that someone is out of reach.
FIRST CHRISTMAS letter from the Fink family. December 1989. Federal Way, WA.
"Dear Relatives," it begins. "Hello! And Merry Christmas to you! ... The '89 year brought many changes to our household. It all began with two bad snowstorms... "
There is more to this letter. A lot more. Somehow, a year's worth of information about Doreen Fink, her husband, Bill, and their two children, McKenna and Matt, manages to fit onto one side of an 8 ½-by-11-inch sheet of paper. That's in no small part thanks to Doreen's careful handwriting, which once earned her A's in penmanship.
She reads this letter now, 23 years later, then stops. Something gnaws at her. It's that greeting. Her eyes fixate on one word.
"Dear 'Relatives'? Now why would I have said that?" she says, studying the page. "Sounds kind of weird, right? Relatives? I should have just written 'Dear Friends and Family.' Or "Dear Family and Friends.' "
Or she could have written nothing at all. She could have joined the scores of holiday slackers who fail to send out anything this time of year (yours truly!). Or she could have scribbled a hurried signature onto a card, anxious to scratch off a task on an endless to-do list.
But that's not Doreen. Doreen is a woman who loves to connect, and keep in touch and rekindle the bonds she nurtured as a girl growing up in Parma, Ohio, even though she's spent the past 30 years building a life 2,500 miles away.
This is what a Christmas letter can do. It can bridge the chasm between here and there, then and now. It can be held in someone's hand, when that someone is out of reach. Doreen knows this because she felt it after she and her family moved to Washington in 1983.
That year, they received a holiday letter from her childhood friend, Nancy. It was handwritten and mimeographed with purple ink that bled into the margins, but Doreen read every word. She remembered feeling calm, like she could hear her friend talking to her. She read the letter again after Christmas was over. And again.
In 1989, Doreen was inspired enough to sit down and compose a letter to everyone back in Ohio. She was not the writer in the family — that title belonged to Bill — but she wanted her loved ones to hear her voice. She was still "Reeni" and they were still part of her.
"We experienced one other major makeover (no, not me!!) and that was to see our house go from light green to a beautiful yellow w/white trim with green accents — all in about 3 days! Fast!"
On it went until the end, which Doreen signed with love from the whole family. She dropped it in the mail to the 100 people on her list.
She's done it every year, ever since.
EACH DECEMBER, a procession of envelopes arrives at our homes with dutiful cheer, wishing us happy things. Some of these envelopes contain letters.
They can come wrapped in self-centered pomp, as in: "We're amazing and here's a list of reasons why!"
Or they can be laced with deadpan humor: "As usual, nothing interesting happened this year." (More from the couple who wrote that in a minute.)
Content aside, the letters have good intentions. They strive to revive something that feels extinguished. They are a refreshingly analog behavior in our increasingly frenzied, insta-meme lives.
Author and journalist Andrew Lam, once a commentator on NPR, reflected recently in the Huffington Post on the "Lost Art of Letter Writing." In a world where we're constantly chatting, he wrote, "very little is actually being said."
"We substitute human emotions with punctuations :> :< and emoticons, hoping somehow they could substitute our sensibility and taste and convey the nuances of our lives."
By contrast, a letter forces us to think deeply about what we want someone else to know. It requires deliberate follow-through; there's the stamping, addressing and actual mailing.
These days, who's got the time? Just look to the financials of the U.S. Postal Service for confirmation of that.
The agency reported a $5.2 billion loss in the third fiscal quarter of this year, citing declining mail volumes, down 25 percent since 2006, among the chief reasons for its hemorrhaging.
E-diversion "reflects a permanent secular shift in customer behavior," the agency wrote in a plan this year to boost profitability.
The greeting-card industry, also fighting for relevancy alongside e-cards, has experienced steady losses since 2005. This is expected to continue through 2015, according to Mintel Group Ltd., a market-research firm. Worldwide, the firm noted, about 500 million e-cards are sent each year.
But even that practice is getting old. Fast. "Social networking and the widespread use of smartphones may cause many e-card users (particularly younger consumers) to migrate away from e-cards and to newer technology," the firm found.
All these advances in communication mean it's easier to connect with each other now more than at any other point in human history. But the quality of these exchanges, often fired off in real-time speech pellets, can't help but call into question the direction of our literacy.
Which brings us back to Christmas letters. As anachronistic as they seem, they still possess a bit of magic.
My sister-in-law, Laura, is someone who understands this perfectly. She could, in fact, nab a prize in our family for Most Awesome Christmas Letter. There is no other contender. (Not that I'm judging.) This woman kills it every year.
She takes the strictures of the traditional letter — like the fact that it's usually written from a human's point-of-view — and flips that on its head, narrating from the perspective of the family pet, complete with misspellings and grammatical errors.
Last year, when Abby, their 10-year-old Golden Retriever and annual scribe, died, Sydney the cat took over. Grudgingly.
"I will act as scrivener (sic) this year; however, I recognize that this is really dog's work and the family's newest addition, Rosie, if trainable, will take over in 2012."
The result is warm and funny and heartfelt. During a season when I'm fighting for breath, her letter makes me pause and feel connected.
Which, come to think of it, is a pretty sweet gift.
TURNS OUT, my sister-in-law is on to something.
The three keys to get your audience to love your Christmas letter? Be warm and funny and heartfelt. In other words, save the vanity for the bathroom mirror.
"You don't want it to be 'Look at us! Look at us!' " says Mark Wittman, 56, one half of a Christmas-letter-writing power couple who live in the Shorewood on the Sound neighborhood in Burien.
Wittman and his partner, Doug Durbin, should brand themselves Christmas Specialists. Longtime readers of the magazine might recall them from our 2009 holiday issue where we wrote about their extraordinarily elaborate Christmas trees — that year there were 12 — and the breathtaking detail with which they decorated them.
No surprise, then, that these two could offer a Santa's workshop on how to write a holiday letter. Rule No. 1: Self-deprecation goes a long way.
In their 2002 letter, the one mentioned earlier, they wove together an entertaining tale of the year around their kitchen remodel, making fun of this "First World problem" in proper fashion.
"From January through April, we were 'busy, busy, busy' delaying action on this decision," the letter began. "All this procrastination was draining, so we decided to take a vacation. We headed to New York ... saw a few Broadway shows, overate, and slowly came to the realization that we were going to have to actually clean the kitchen or rip it out."
An excerpt from 2010 pokes fun at their attempt to get in shape:
"We began 2010 as we do each year: grumbling about our weight between bites of food, celebrating the invention of elastic waistbands and lamenting the lack of adventure in our lives. To start this year off in a different direction, we signed up for a half marathon that would take place in June. Let the training begin! Starting tomorrow."
The letters have become so popular among their friends that those who might "cycle out of our orbit" request to get back on the list, Durbin says.
What these recipients don't see is all the sweat that goes into the crafting and composition. During the year, the two file away notes of things that might be "letter-worthy." A theme starts to emerge in early-to-mid-December. Then it's crunch time.
"It's always a rush and it's always a panic," Wittman says.
He writes, Durbin edits and he rewrites. The couple go through about 10 iterations before they're satisfied. (Rule No. 2: It must fit on one page.)
Sometimes, material just appears. The couple struck Christmas-letter pay dirt in 2005. Literally.
During a vacation with friends to Peru, they hopped on a bus to visit Lake Titicaca. As the bus traveled at 60 miles an hour, the wheels suddenly fell off. In the middle of nowhere.
"The other passengers were screaming like high school girls on a field trip to Brad Pitt's house, but we just looked at each other and remarked, "This year's Christmas letter is writing itself."
DOREEN FINK approaches her writing with this philosophy: "How it happens is how it happens," she says.
What about structure? Pacing? Narrative arc? She laughs. Best to leave that to actual writers, she says, adding once more that such matters fall under Bill's territory.
Here's the thing, though. Bill doesn't read the letter.
"He doesn't even look at it," Doreen says. "If he did, he'd probably edit out his part."
Bill doesn't entirely disagree with this statement. In his defense, Doreen is in charge of the calendars and datebooks. She's simply better at pulling together all the information over the year, he says.
"I'm lucky if I can remember what we did the previous week."
So Doreen goes it alone each year, unedited, uncensored, at liberty to use greetings like "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and mention things like McKenna growing out her hair and Bill's hernia surgery and the freezer catching fire ON THE INSIDE, which burned all the food.
This is carte blanche reporting license. This is what writers dream about.
Merry Christmas, Doreen. You got it good.
Sonia Krishnan is a former Seattle Times staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Susan Jouflas is a Times staff artist.