Around Christmastime a couple of years ago, one of my friends ranted about how much he hated those holiday "brag letters" people send out each year. After making a mental note never to send him one in the future, I began to wonder what it is that makes people so irate about the good fortune of others.
I actually like hearing about what the people who lived down the street from me 20 years ago are up to. Sure, it initially takes some remembering to figure out who they are and why they're sending me that card, but if it weren't for the annual tradition, it would be easy to lose touch.
Of course, it's possible I'm defending the practice because I was born into a family of serious yuletide letter writers. The annual Vick Family Christmas Letter is an organized and well-thought-out publication edited by my father. Although a pilot by profession, Captain Vick's true calling in life may have been publishing.
Each November he begins the process with a call for submissions. The letter is formatted so that each family member gets a little blurb mentioning his or her highlights that year, and it is our job to tell him what we'd like included.
Inevitably, one of my sisters or I complain, "Nothing exciting has happened in our life this year," which forces my dad to highlight some less-than-exciting event - like moving from seventh to eighth grade.
Of course, it always seems that when you've had a slow year, everyone else has had a banner one. This year my older sister's section will probably read something like: "Jennifer is still happily married and is finishing up her PhD program at Columbia."
Alternately, my blurb might read: "Despite being out of college for seven years, Julie is working the front desk at a nonprofit and taking a couple of graduate classes at night. She still isn't dating anyone. Next year she promises to do something more exciting."
That last line actually appeared in one of the past editions. I'm pretty sure it was in my section.
Once he's gathered the necessary material, my father puts the finishing touches on the letter by sprinkling sarcasm throughout the sections. Past letters have featured jokes about my mom being "39++++++++" that year and my younger sister working on her "fifth and, hopefully, final year of college."
Growing up, I never thought much about the letter until I started hearing people say it's the one card they look forward to all season. At family gatherings, complete strangers have come up to me, shaken my hand, and asked me about my recent trip to Europe. When I stare back, frozen and perplexed, they add, "We just love getting that Christmas letter from your family. It's so funny!"
That's when I saw the letter in a new light. All those people in different corners of the country were eagerly awaiting the release of a new issue, hanging onto every detail of our adventures.
Of course, no good holiday letter relies solely on text; the audience likes to see pictures, too. Other people have professional photographs taken with family members all wearing matching Christmas sweaters. But that requires forethought, and my family normally forgets about it until the final hour.
One year I came home on a Sunday night in December to find a voice mail from my mom waiting for me: "Julie, we are putting together the Christmas letter and need a current photo of you. If you have one you can e-mail us, send it tonight. Your father is going to Kinko's for the final printing in an hour."
I called her back, but it was too late. "We just had to put in one of the photos of us at Thanksgiving," my mom said.
When I went home for the holidays that year, I saw they had selected a picture from Thanksgiving a year earlier, in which I looked as if I hadn't seen the sun in three years and had forgotten how to dress properly.
Surely they could have selected something more flattering, I complained. "I don't think it's very good of any of us," my dad said as we stared at a copy of the picture. "But we had to put something in."
Of course, no one has ever come up to me and said, "That was a good picture of you in the '97 Christmas letter, but what happened in '98?" It's the words that people remember.
What I've come to realize is that my father has achieved a level of success in his writing that I have yet to reach in my own. The collective readership of my articles in the high school yearbook and various obscure Internet publications probably totals 25. But that Christmas letter has traveled to thousands of households across the country. People take it in, read the whole thing, and quote lines from it.
But right now another year is closing in on me, and the lack of excitement in my life looms. After all, if this is a slow year, I've got to rally in 2006 and do something worthy of appearing in the next issue of the Vick Family Christmas Letter.