My mother wrote an annual Christmas letter.
As a military wife, I suppose it was her way of staying connected to the friends and relatives we left dotted across the globe as we shuttled from army base to army base.
To her children, whose antics and accomplishments she dutifully chronicled year after year, the letter was a grounding force that helped us make sense out of an ever-changing world. A yearly reminder of who we were, where we belonged and how much we mattered to the people we mattered to.
Its true. One short paragraph about each one of us flanked on either end by a generically warm “Season’s Greetings!” accomplished all that and then some…
I can’t vouch for the enthusiasm of her targeted readership, but I certainly clamored for my copy every December. As soon as she finished composing it, correcting any typos with a bottle of White-Out, she’d Xerox off 100 or so copies on festive holiday paper and I’d snatch the first one I could get my hands on.
Back in those days, editorial privileges were seldom granted to mere children, so I had to steel my nerves with a deep breath and a big slug of hot cocoa before I could work up the gumption for my first skim-through. (In general, reading about your life through the lens of your mother’s perspective could prove cringe-worthy.)
I’d suffer through my sibling’s paragraphs with the indulgent understanding that my mother was obligated to include a blurb or two about her other kids. Most years I’d note she “laid it on a bit thick” bragging about my sister’s Girl Scout badges or my brother’s track meet medals.
But mostly I couldn’t wait to get to the good part. The real entertainment.
The part about me.
How had mother’s flowery prose best showcased my accomplishments, milestones and achievements this past year? I couldn’t wait to read in Mama’s very own words how terribly proud she was of her most cherished offspring.
Yes, the Christmas letter can be a delightfully insightful summary of a child’s progress, a frank assessment of how they’re “coming along” as they slog their way down the path towards their reluctant adulthood.
But it could be a slippery slope as well. Our mother was a true southerner with a penchant for storytelling and extreme exaggeration. Just as she added additional syllables to every word she spoke, she added a little extra fluff to every story she told. She could take even the most minor mishap in our young lives and “color it up” until it hardly resembled reality.
Sometimes this worked in our favor. Sometimes not.
Oftentimes her recollections caused us to regret more than a few childish foibles and resolve to spend the next 12 months attempting to redeem ourselves.
All in glorious pursuit of more impressive future paragraphs guaranteed to overshadow our siblings, drop-kicking them into literary obscurity by the very next holiday season.
Is that so very wrong?
I’m not sure if this was our mother’s intended child-rearing side effect, but she kept pecking away at that letter long after we were all married with children of our own and we continued jumping through hoops to impress her as long as we could.
Needless to say, I purposely initiated this tradition in my own family, because a gratifying level of accountability laced with an amusing degree of paranoia accompanies it. It’s inestimably effective for my children to know when they pull a crappy stunt in, say, July, that it will likely be touted in the family Christmas letter later on that same year.
A few years ago, one of my sons rolled his truck. As we stood there on the side of the road, bathed in the red flashing lights of emergency vehicles, rather than inquiring if our automobiles were adequately insured, how long he was to be grounded or if we had “accident forgiveness,” he asked if there was any chance I was planning to humiliate him by weaving the tale of the incident into the family Christmas letter.
So if you ever find yourself deliberating over whether or not to draft one of these tedious missives yourself; updating everyone from the Amatos to the Zimmers on your family’s highs and lows, milestones and developments, or whether to keep it simple with a photo card, do at least consider the potential upsides:
The threat of a Christmas letter can pay huge dividends all year long, keeping even the most rogue offspring on their behavioral toes. So what if it has the added benefit of stirring up some petty unhealthy sibling rivalry? It may also spur your spawn to run a little faster, study a little harder, eschew texting while driving and honor that perfectly reasonable curfew you set for them.
Because around here, the Christmas letter is the gift that keeps on giving, as the pen (keyboard/tablet/smartphone) is, and always will be, mightier than the sword.