BY CHARLES MEMMINGER – Like a 10-year-old fossilized fruitcake, the annual family holiday letter is a Christmas tradition that refuses to go gently into the dustbin of history even though Facebook, Twitter and e-mail have made the annoying massive missives obsolete.
But tis the season when people who have not strung three coherent sentences together during the entire year suddenly fancy themselves a literary cross between John Steinbeck, Jon Stewart and Charles Dickens, able to crank out a humorous, poignant, entertaining, gripping and disturbingly detailed account of how the family has fared during the previous eleven months.
The family Christmas letter has become a specific genre of literature that in several hundred years of existence has failed to generate a single farthing of income, a clear clue to any forensic literati that it is an essentially pointless branch of written communication.
In contrast, a single haiku hidden inside a Hallmark greeting card is a titan of commercial literary achievement, bringing in up to $3.47 per unit.
Now, you may argue that the point of an annual family letter is not to create income but to contribute to the archive of family history on a micro-level. Untrue. The annual letter has evolved into its own art form and therefore has to go toe-to-toe with other forms of literature. To return to the metaphor of the fossilized fruitcake … no one would allege that fruitcakes are not part of the food family, they are just food that no one would think of eating.
As a professional writer, I have attempted to raise the stature of annual family letters by offering instruction to those who insist on attempting to write one. In my epic work, “Hey, Tourist! Buy This Book!” – a tome that sent the literary world into spasms of apathy– I included a piece on how to construct an effective family holiday letter. It essentially provided the broad framework of a family letter with multiple choice options that applied to your specific family situation. Here’s a sample:
Dearest and Closest (a. Friends, b. Romans c. Countrymen),
What a year it has been! You’ve no doubt heard that Grandpa (a. croaked, b. couldn’t raise the $250,000 bail, c. won a Nobel Peace Prize). It goes without saying we were quite (a. elated, b. saddened, c. indifferent). Our eldest son continues to distinguish himself as (a. leader of an underground skinhead movement, b. a shoe salesman, c. a professional hamster thrower). Of course, our darling daughter finished (a. sleeping with most of her graduating class, b. her course in garbage disposal mechanics, c. posing for the December cover of “Biker Babe” magazine). We are soooooo (a. proud, b. dismayed, c. confused.)
I know. It still gives me chicken skin, too. The level of writing is just so … so … semi-advanced. Had that cooperative letter been published online today, it would have gone viral. As it was published in 1995, it didn’t really leave the island, although it is still spoken of in some parts of Kaneohe.
I have to confess that I have contributed in the past to the broad anthology of family Christmas letters. But when compelled to write one, I tended to lean toward the satirical.
While they seemed to be family Christmas letters and were entertaining and informative, I was actually making fun on the whole enterprise.
My letter of 2007, for instance, was written in the form of an FBI 302 report, complete with official-looking stamps and seals and large parts of the letter redacted with black marker. I can report that the family at large did not “get it” and either was disturbed or confused by the dispatch.
Hey, what can I say? You can’t choose your audience. A more intellectually astute family unit would have been rolling on the floor in laughter, beating their little fists on the carpet.
Another year, I composed an annual family Christmas letter that was apparently too avant-garde or droll, it being in the format of a hostage demand letter with a funny photo of my wife and I tied up to chairs with our mouths duct taped. I never did find out which member of the family sent the SWAT team to my house.
So the point here is that family Christmas letters have outlived their usefulness, if they ever had any.
If done well – which in the hands of amateurs they usually aren’t – they can be fun. But, as the above example shows, can also be misunderstood.
My advice, skip the letter. Send a heart-felt, loving Tweet.
A hundred and forty characters are plenty to get your point across.
Or send your family something that could become an heirloom, something generations of family can enjoy. I saw a three-pound Trappist Abbey Monastery Fruitcake on sale on Amazon.com for $59.95. That thing looks like it could last for decades.