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Spicing Up the Christmas Newsletter

Christmas letters are an occasion to sin for me. Don’t get me wrong. I like hearing from friends and family members about what’s going on in their lives. If nothing else, it provides a nice crib sheet for the otherwise forgotten names of their children — at least, if I can find the letter again afterwards. I don’t even mind composing, copying, and posting my family’s letters, which falls to me most years since (a) my wife teaches, making December (the end of the semester) one of the busiest times of the year for her, and (b) I’m the English major/writer in the family.

Still, there’s something that raises my hackles about the whole thing. Or maybe it’s just the classic brag-pattern so many of them take. So your child is the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart. Do I look like I wanted to know that? Particularly if my child goes off-key humming “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? Hatred’s too strong a word (well, probably), but some people’s letters certainly give rise to distinct feelings of dislike, or at least irritation.

That being the case, I’ve started to see my own Christmas letters as a chance for some quiet, passive-aggressive revenge. The trick, as I see is, is (a) to deliver meaningful information, while (b) undermining, parodying, and/or stretching the boundaries of the genre as much as possible.
There’s a variety of ways this can be done. I try to come up with a new trick each year, both to keep my readers off-balance and to avoid becoming bored myself. Some of the techniques I’ve tried include the following:

  • Recounting not just awards and accomplishments, but also quirks, foibles, and embarrassing moments
  • Creating a “frame” story or plot
  • Inventing fictitious characters, facts, and incidents, and then challenging the readers to sort out true from false
  • Writing in advance about projected accomplishments for the coming year before Real Life has a chance to disprove them
  • Using extravagant vocabulary, outlandish metaphors, and other verbal flashiness to distract readers from the boring mundanity of the events I’m reporting
  • Sheer, simple insanity

Writing tips do little good without specific examples. So without any further ado, here are some selections from past offerings, each from a different year (with names removed so as to avoid retribution).

Selection 1:
It’s a cold and windy night in the wilds of western Wisconsin. Stars shine down on the scene, bright and unforgiving. Every now and then a tumbleweed blows out of the blackness, and then is swept on again an instant later. A few snowflakes are starting to fall.

“Cold tonight,” [wife] says. Jonathan nods. [2 younger children] are too busy trying to warm themselves over the wan fire to answer.

Billy Bob [not a real person] shakes his head, while the others look worried.

“Time to get supper on, I guess,” says Jonathan in a weary voice.
“I want sourdough toast!” [teenage daughter] exclaims eagerly.
“Do you ever eat anything besides sourdough toast? And yet you keep getting taller.”
Billy Bob bites his lip, while the others look worried.
“I’d best call [oldest son] and see how he’s doing out at college,” says [wife], pulling out her cell phone.
“How do you think he’s doing?”
Jonathan and [wife] exchange troubled looks. They know of old regarding college students and their schedules, and their diets.
“I guess that I should send out the letter to everyone telling them we’ve survived our first year with two teenagers.”
“Barely,” mutters [wife].
Billy Bob laughs maniacally and pulls out a machete, while the others look worried.

Selection 2:
Mysteriously, [oldest child] also succeeded in persisting for a fifth year in a church group with an active Boy Scouts program, in which he participated in Scouting-related activities three evenings a month, with friends wending their way toward Eagle Scout status, without showing any signs of advancement beyond Tenderfoot. Of course, his father, having failed to achieve even that lowest rank during his years in the Boy Scouts, found little to say on the topic.

Selection 3:
In our last exciting episode, the Langford family — Jonathan, [wife], [oldest son], [daughter], [youngest son], and Billie Jo [fictitious character] — were dangling from the Cliffs of Incompetence, tossed by the Winds of Circumstance, and threatened below by the crash of breakers against the Shoals of Insolvency and Confusion. Would they be swept off into the chill and icy ocean depths? Dashed against the jagged cliffs? Shot unexpectedly by not-yet-allegorically-named snipers dangling from helicopters?

As events turned out, of course, things were not that interesting. Nonetheless, it was an eventful year, full of doings to report: some happy, some sad, some stochastic and/or stertorous, but none — thankfully — involving snipers dangling from helicopters.

And so forth and so on. The ultimate goal, as I see it, isn’t just to communicate facts. Rather, it’s to make the readers feel like they’ve had the Langford family over for a short visit — and are glad for us to leave again. That, and having a little fun into the bargain. The way I figure it, even if I’m the only one entertained, that’s still important — since I’m the person who has to crank them out year after year. Anything that keeps me from wanting to drop my computer monitor off a tall building each December is a good thing, the way I see it.

So what works for you? How do you keep from wanting to take a machete to all the perfect families you read about each Christmas season? Conversely, how do you manage to present the facts about your own family without having the padded wagons show up the first of January? Inquiring minds want to know! Because I, like, haven’t figured out what I’m going to do for this year’s newsletter yet, and I need some good ideas...

Jonathan Langford is a freelance writer and editor who lives in western Wisconsin with his wife and two children (his oldest is currently serving a mission in western Washington state). His first novel, No Going Back, a 2009 Whitney Award finalist for best general fiction by an LDS author, describes a Mormon teenage boy’s struggle to remain faithful despite his homosexual feelings. Langford is also coauthor of the Latter-day Saint Family Encyclopedia, due for release from Thunder Bay Press in November 2010.

photo source: Kriss Szkurlatowski

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