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How to write a Christmas letter

October 29, 2011
By Paul Willcott

In recent years, the Christmas letter has become almost a full-fledged literary genre - not exactly a sonnet or a detective story, but at its best a form with certain conventions. Get them right, or your cousin in Dubuque, whom you haven't seen in decades, is going to wonder how you got to be so boring.

Back when we wrote Christmas letters by hand, the hectoring that follows was largely unnecessary. Those handwritten notes were short; it was too much work to write long letters over and over. Also, handwritten letters were personal, each one aimed at a particular recipient.

Computers changed all that. They allow-tempt-urge you to sum up your year in a long, one-size-fits-all way that attempts to communicate with an audience that includes a woman in Pakistan you met in 1994 at a conference, your fifth-grade teacher and the college buddy you spent so many hours drinking beer with. Doing that effectively requires care and attention.

Here are three suggestions:

1. Do not send out anything (not even an email, for that matter) without carefully checking for spelling and punctuation errors. And don't rely on spell check alone - it misses things. Get another human, preferably someone literate and skilled, to look at your letter. It doesn't matter how practiced a writer you are, you will make inadvertent errors. They will cry out, "I didn't care enough about this missive and what you think of me to write it carefully."

2. A list of places you visited during the past year is in itself simply not interesting. I don't care if you went through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. If you are going to engage your reader, you have to DO something when you're in Narnia or on the moon or at Disneyland. You have to tell a story in which you more or less try to achieve some goal, you encounter obstacles along the way, you finally succeed or fail, and you emerge at the end a changed person.

3. The health report must be handled with great care. Brevity is much to be desired. If you've had a disease that was so odd it got written up in a medical journal, give it, say, one paragraph. Don't write anything about the ordinary stuff, such as appendectomies. Remember, your readers don't really want to hear much about your health problems; they want to tell you about theirs.

Underlying the "do"s and "don't"s of style and content, there is a thematic consideration that is of paramount importance.

If the Christmas letter is going to realize its full possibilities for both writer and reader, it should answer two questions: "How have I changed in the past year?" and "What experiences caused those changes?" Do that thoughtfully and painstakingly, and you will receive two very welcome Christmas gifts. You will come to a greater understanding of who you are, and you'll make contact with your correspondent in a way that is a true season's greeting.


Paul Willcott spent some years as a cranky English professor. He gave up teaching but kept the crankiness. He lives in Saranac Lake.



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