Those old maligned Christmas letters

The families who didn’t send Christmas letters poked fun at the people who did send Christmas letters.

One joke was that the Christmas letters never told the straight skinny–as we called the real truth in the navy–but presented a fantasy version of the family’s activities. Jail time, divorces, bad grades on report cards, and acne never made it into th Christmas letter. It was all good news, creating world peace, saving people from poverty, and receiving various honors and awards.

My parents added new people to their Christmas letter list at every stop in the road of my father’s advancement up through the faculty ranks. Every new college added people we would know the rest of our lives through cards and letters even though we knew them on a day-to-day basis for a few months or a year.

When my parents passed away, I sent their last letter letting everyone know they were gone and thereafter received cards and letters every year from people I hadn’t seen for half a lifetime.

In later years, the family Christmas leters–collected in a three-ring binder–became my memory. If I couldn’t remember what year we visted Niagara Falls or Fort Ticonderoga or Mammoth Cave, I’d pull out the Christma letter diary and look it up. It’s been a handy resource. On the curiosity side, since my folks put their current address in the letters, I’ve been able to use Google Maps and look up all the houses where we lived back into the 1940s. They’re still there. There have been a few times, though, when I wanted to write the current owners and say, “You really screwed up the front yard.”

I don’t send out Christmas letters. But I do send snail mail cards. It’s a way of staying in touch, old fashioned as it may be. A few friends still send us Christmas letters, some interesting, some tedious. As people get older, they often spend a lot of time traveling: so what we get really isn’t a letter, but an intinerary. We skim those because we really don’t need to know the details of every roadtrip.

Frankly, it would ramp up our interest if letters said stuff like, “Laura spent more time this year in county for turning tricks on Tenderloin Street” and “Bob got caught with his hand in the till at work and had to move to a new church” and “Sam’s had syphilis most of the year again while Megan is hanging out with a bad crowd.”

I’ve been tempted to say such things, but my wife thought it was a bad idea. Probably so.

I often wonder if people under 30 these days care about family continuity whether it’s coming from or saving old letters. It bothers me to think more and more people don’t care who their grandparents were/are or where they lived. All of that past family history seems to play a role in creating the people we’ve become–even if we joke about it by saying, “Acccording to the Christmas letter of 1983. . .”


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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6 thoughts on “Those old maligned Christmas letters

  1. How very true.

    In years to come the Twitter generation are going to miss out on this. And, at some point, probably from their sixties onwards, they are going to miss the family information that snail mail letters, and then emails, provided. I used to teach creative writing with a section on memoir and the first thing we always said was “squeeze the old people in your family for the family history, before they’re gone.” Our local FB groups here are full of postings of old photos, with people asking ‘who remembers this?’ and getting about 300 likes. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to ‘like’ because I was there, because I (a bit like you) moved around too much, so I’m an anywhere, not a somewhere. And I did not ask my oldies in time! But without family stories – how will people write fiction?

    I’ve just finished a review for Big Al which is the (fictional) life story of A Good Ol’ Boy in southern Illinois. I was riveted by it. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Keep an eye out for it – I think you’d like it. It’s called ‘Bell Hammers’

    1. Right now when many people are living in the moment, they can’t imagine moments in the future when they may want some record of what they did, who they knew, and where they were. It does feel odd to see “old” photographs on Facebook with the question, “Do you know what this is?” Of course, I know what that is. I have one on my desk.

      Thanks for the “Bell Hammers” tip.

  2. Malcolm, those Facebook posts asking “Do you know what this is?” make me feel really old and out of touch, and I’m only in my 50s. Half the stuff they post I still have, and might even use. Regarding family history, although I moved around quite a bit at least my grandparents were anchored in just-outside small-town TN and my parents owned a house there, so I definitely feel as if I have roots. But I must admit I was a little surprised that more relatives, both on my husband’s side and mine, weren’t really interested in the family histories I spent the last three years researching and writing. *I* had a blast doing it, but the “younger” generations, mine and below, don’t seem to really care other than to say, “Oh, cool. We came from Vikings,” or some other bragging point.

    1. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see pictures of stuff in our kitchen posted with the “does anyone know what this thing is?” header. Hopefully, somebody will one day pick up a copy of that family history and say, “I’m glad what’s-her-face wrote this.” You never know who will ultimately decide that the old stories are worth knowing.

  3. It’s great that you thought those letters were worth keeping. I only get them from people I don’t know or don’t care to know so I seldom read them. I figure if they really wanted me to know what was going on, they’d email me or text me. Or . . . heaven forbid! . . . maybe even call.

    1. My parents saved them for years as a record of what we were all doing. Nice to have. They only work if one has, say, 15 to 20 people who like to get a yearly update and hope there’s a Christmas card with the letter. That doesn’t work so well on e-mail unless a person knows a lot more about fancy newsletters than I do.

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