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Will Facebook spell the end of Christmas letters?

Your Facebook friends already know what's been going on in your life for the past year. Does this mean the extinction of the annual Christmas letter, and thus, another missing piece for historians?

By / December 1, 2010

A US Postal Service employee grabs a pile of holiday greeting cards and other letters at the processing and distribution center in Capitol Heights, Maryland. Last year, the postal service saw a decline in holiday cards and letters in the first half of December.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Newscom/file

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For my friends and family who are not on Facebook, I usually explain it this way: It's like sending out the annual Christmas letter, except in little bits throughout the year. Your friends can see your news; you can see theirs; and you can comment on each other's.

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Now that I'm sitting down to write the real annual Christmas letter, it suddenly hit me. Do I have anything left to say beyond a sign-off in a greeting card? Is the Christmas letter – that last written reportage of personal life in any given year – about to go extinct?

After all, my Facebook friends already know what I've been up to.

They know I just got back from a weekend in Philadelphia, where my husband and I walked in the footsteps of the founding fathers and also taste-tested Philly cheesesteaks (Pat's King of Steaks won, due to superior grilled onions and crispier bread). They know what I've been writing and blogging about in my journalistic life. They know that in Washington we had a glorious fall that lingered like smoke from yesteryear's pile of burning leaves.

Not that any of that is vital information per se. But historians lament the ongoing decline of the written letter, prompted by the introduction of the telegraph, then the telephone, and now the Internet. Writers may attempt to store their digital correspondence, but storage devices change, confounding archivists. Remember floppy disks?

Historians can turn to official written records, of course, but the personal epistle brings an era to life. As Sinclair Lewis put it, these writings tell "what people ate, with what weapons exactly they killed each other and the precise state of acid pomposity with which a duke or plainsman complains of his breakfast porridge."

Not that you'll find complaint or carnage in the typically bland Christmas letter. But that annual greeting is one last paper communication of length that people still attempt to share with each other.

This holiday season, the US Postal Service expects a slight drop in greeting cards and letters, from 3 billion down to 2.9 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's hardly extinct. But what's inside those greeting cards? I'll still send out as many cards this year as last, but probably only half of them will have a real letter tucked inside.

At some point, poof, that'll be it (and perhaps recipients of annual treatises will be relieved). Unless, perhaps, we reinvent the Christmas letter. Its purpose is to share the joy and meaning of the season. Instead of highlights from the last twelve months, what if such a letter bore down on a single meaningful experience?

Facebook skates over, it doesn't dive deep. It's crumbs, not a thick slice of Christmas stollen. Hmmm. Go deep. My friends and family might like that. Historians will, too.

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