"I THINK we ought to write a Christmas letter this year," my wife said at the breakfast table the other morning.
"A what?" I asked warily.
"A Christmas letter. You know, like the kind the Huggins send out to all their friends every year."
I recalled the Huggins' Christmas letters: five page mimeographed reports on family activities for the preceding year, with the simple greetings of the season all but buried.
I hurried off to work before my wife could pursue the subject any further, but, that evening she presented me with a packet of letters including not only the recent efforts of the Huggins hut Christmas letters other families had sent us as well.
"Now you read these and see if you don't think it would be a good idea for us to do this instead of sending cards this Christmas," she said.
One would have been enough, for the letters were indistinguishable in style and content. Posing innocently as Christmas greetings, they were actually unabashed family sagas. The writers touched lightly on the misfortunes which their families suffered during the year, dwelt gladly on happy events, and missed no opportunity for self congratulation.
I haven't the slightest intention of writing a Christmas letter myself, but once I'd put a red or green ribbon in my typewriter, I'm sure I could turn one out in no time at all.
"OUR HOUSE TO YOURS!" is the standard beginning. Centered at the top of an 8 x 11" sheet of paper, it spares the writer the nuisance of penning salutations on the hundred or more copies he will doubtless send out. The exclamation mark is the first of dozens that will be used. No Christmas letter averages fewer than eighteen "!'s," "!!'s," or "(!)'s" a page.
The opening sentence always starts with the word "Well." "Well, here it is Christmas again!" is a favorite; or, "Well, hard as it is to realize, Christmas has rolled round once more!" A somewhat more expansive opening is "Well, Christmas finds us all one year older, but young as ever in the spirit of the Season!" Actually what is said is unimportant as long as the sentence starts with "Well," and ends, of course, with an exclamation mark.
Having taken due note of the season, the Christmas letter writer works immediately into his first main topic—the accidents which befell him and his family and the diseases they suffered during the year. He writes with cheerful fortitude. Broken arms and legs call forth the reminiscent chuckle, and childhood diseases open the way for humor of a sort. "As it must to all children," the Huggins wrote last Christmas, "the mumps came to Albert Jr. and to Susie. Fortunately they were taken sick during the spring vacation and didn't miss any school. We don't think they'd agree with our use of the word 'fortunately.' (Haha!)" The parenthetical "Ha ha!" or simply "Ha!" appears at least once in each paragraph of a Christmas letter.
The writer next reviews the unusual activities of the year— the family's annual vacation at Sunrise Lake, for example. The summer vacation looms large in Christmas letters. Golf scores, size of fish caught, and the successes of the children in swimming and boating contests are good for a page and a half.
A peculiarity of the Christmas letter which the reader may find disconcerting is its inconstant point of view. Most Christmas letters presume to be joint husband and wife efforts, but sudden shifts, sometimes within a sentence, to an outsider's point of view are frequent. Writing from his own and his wife Bea's point of view, Jim could say: "We drove to Sunrise Lake in the record time of seven hours and fourteen minutes. Jim was trying to set a record, and he succeeded with the help, of course, of his Mercury which Bea insisted that we have before taking another long trip."
One reason for the use of the shifting point of view is the partial cover-up it affords the writer. Since he devotes a good part of the letter to his achievements of the past year, he mast take care to avoid appearing boastful. "He succeeded" sounds better than "I succeeded." The shifting point of view has its limitations, of course, and when the writer wants to record an especially proud accomplishment he makes use of the footnote. If properly handled, the footnote can actually make him seem to be self effacing. Should Jim, for example, want to tell about the big one he caught at Sunrise Lake, he first says that his son, Joey, is the real fisherman in the family— that Joey, in fact, caught bigger trout than he did last summer. He then writes the following footnote signing it "Bea": "Jim insists or being a devoted parent. Actually it was he who caught the larger trout: a ten pounder, the biggest, according to the people at the grocery store, that anyone had caught at Sunrise Lake in six years!" On an average, three footnotes appear at the bottom of each page of the Christmas letter.
The last section of the letter is devoted to such routine matters as recent improvements the writer has made on his house ("With only the part time help of a chimney pointer, Jim built a fireplace this fall on the north end of our living room"), activities in the community ("Jim is now Captain of our precinct in the Civil Defense program, and Bea has been made Den Mother of Joey's Scout troop. She says she doesn't plan to hibernate for the winter, however"). An effort obviously is made to make the tone of the letter humorous, but the underlying seriousness is never lost sight of. If, for a moment, it sinks from view, the writer is quick with a footnote or a "Ha ha!" to indicate the depth of his irony.
The concluding paragraph of the Christmas letter, like the opening, always begins with the word "Well." "WeIl, that about sums up our activities for the year" is what the Huggins invariably say, although they make it clear that they have merely scratched the surface by adding: "Of course there was the time back in April when Susie won first, prize in the poetry-reciting contest, and in September when Albert Jr. was elected president of his Junior High School class, but we really must close."
Before signing their names, Christmas letter writers usually succeed in reminding themselves that their purpose, after all, has been to extend Christmas greetings. "And so, a Merry Christmas to you all!" is the conventional ending, although a few, like the Huggins, prefer the full-blown close. "All of us," they wrote last year, "Albert Sr., Evelyn, Susie, and Albert Jr., join with Tiny Tim in saying, 'God bless us, every one!'"
As I say, I have no intention of writing one of these letters myself. Come to think of it, though, I never did let old Bill Mason out in Seattle know about that 78 I shot last summer, and I'm sure the Potters down in Shreveport haven't heard how our David talked at nine months and was walking at ten and a half...