We Fax You a Merry Christmas

ANY day now, typewriters and personal computers across the country will begin turning out copies - lots and lots of copies - of what has become an American tradition: The Annual Christmas Letter. At their best, these form-letter greetings can serve as pleasant, informative summaries of family activities during the year - an efficient way to bring far-flung friends up to date on such events as births, graduations, career changes, new addresses, and vacations.

At their worst, the impersonal missives read more like a corporate report, bragging about another record year. Long, endlessly detailed, and mostly single-spaced, they lay on the superlatives to describe exotic travels, high-level promotions, and brilliant children.

Ah, the brilliant children. At times, a reader of holiday printouts begins to think that the whole country is turning into Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keilor's mythical town ``where the children are all above average.''

What are they saying - these not-so-subtle examples of parental crowing that so easily lend themselves to parody?

Mythical item: ``Two-year-old Jessica scored perfect 800s on her NAT's (Nursery Aptitude Tests) and will be entering advanced preschool in the fall.''

Mythical item: ``Jonathan graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in June and is now working for a Fortune 500 company in New York, earning $89,000.''

Ostensibly the authors/parents are ``counting their blessings.'' But the subliminal message to other parents, the ones on the mass mailing list, reads: ``Anything your kids can do, our kids can do better.''

However well-intentioned the Christmas letter, there is something vaguely troubling about a form that takes on the tone of another chapter in the ongoing autobiography of Donald Trump - especially just at this time of year. Christmas should mark a holiday from competing - the truce period in the wars among those ``going for it.''

If we practice one-upmanship even in season's greetings - if we pretend to say ``we're thinking of you'' in letters that sound more like nominations for the Family of the Year Award - when will we ever declare a time-out from the Age of Me?

At any other time of year, the standard Christmas letter might be an acceptable expression in a society that frankly subscribes to ``making it.'' Certainly nobody can deny the rationale for an annual parental brag-out, as explained by James Barron in a New York Times education section:

``Most parents resist the term `average.' This aversion is particularly pronounced among highly intelligent, high-achieving parents who do not want to hear that their son or daughter is doing precisely what a normal child would do at that age in that subject.

``Time was,'' Mr. Barron adds, ``when being average was, well, the norm, and the norm was something that people could live with. Beaver Cleaver could bring home C's without his parents running to a psychiatrist - or sending him to one - and the principal never transferred Dennis the Menace to a class for learning-disabled students.''

But if Beaver Cleaver and Dennis the Menace were growing up today, what would their parents be able to write in their annual Christmas epistle?

For 11 months of the year, let the country belong to the Lee Iacocca clones who live - and raise their children - according to the philosophy voiced this season by an up-and-coming television star, Yue-Sai Kan, who hosts ``Looking East,'' a series on Asian culture: ``If you're not going to be the best, why be anything?''

But once a year, please, let's take a vacation from a world divided into winners and losers. There will always be room in mailboxes - and December hearts - for computer-printed holiday letters written with a measure of modesty. Yet beyond these exceptions, gratefully received, Christmas letters too often violate the ``spirit of Christmas'' as originally defined - a season when we think of others, a season when ``the last shall be first and the first shall be last,'' a season when unworldly values of success are affirmed and center stage belongs to a homeless family in Bethlehem.

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