This holiday season, I'm through with apologizing, finished with being slightly embarrassed. I'm ready to stand behind any lectern, anytime, anywhere and declare with upraised fist: "My name is Carolyn Armistead, and I write an annual Christmas letter!"
You know - those photocopied messages you find tucked into your Christmas cards; the "Dear Friends and Family" letters that people (especially newspaper columnists) love to mock during the holidays. Well, the time has come to hear the other side of the story. It's high time that someone told The Truth About Christmas Letters.
First of all - and this is an important point - why do so many people claim to hate Christmas letters when they are sent by their own friends and family?
I can't imagine that annoying strangers are sending their news to a randomly chosen Christmas card list. These are the same folks who share our gene pool, those we've freely chosen to welcome into our social circles. They reflect who we truly are more than anyone else on the planet, so certainly they couldn't be that indiscreet, boastful, and irritating. Could they?
My next point comes with some valuable advice. People who hate printed Christmas letters should not read them. No one is holding a gun to their heads, hissing through clenched teeth, "read about little Susie's dance recital or else!" Instead, easily irritated recipients should release holiday stress by crushing each unread letter into a little ball and hurling it across the room. (True curmudgeons should try aiming at the angel on the top of the tree.) If you don't read them, you won't have anything to complain about. Problem solved.
I myself would never let a Christmas letter go unread. I'm aware that holiday letters present an edited, dressed-up-for-company view, but they still provide precious glimpses of information from the people I've chosen to keep in my life and in my address book. If I occasionally come across an account that's a bit too-good-to-be-true, they're never the blatant bragfests that stereotype and legend lead one to expect. Most of the letters I receive are warm, interesting, and full of self-deprecating humor. I like to think they reflect a new generation in Christmas letters, deserving a fresh, open-minded look from the letter Grinches among us.
Those who don't indulge in this practice may ask: If Christmas letters are despised by a certain sector of the population, why do we insist on writing them in the first place? I'm genuinely interested in reading about the lives of my friends and family, so I take that leap of faith and hope they're interested in hearing about ours as well. I also write them because I don't have time to write a long, personal letter to everyone on my Christmas list, as much as I'd like to. And because Christmas is often the only time I communicate with a lot of folks, even with all my good intentions and fond feelings, I want to make it count.
The hidden truth - and something no one ever reveals - is that the people most deserving of Christmas card wrath aren't those who send mass-produced letters, but people who send cards with their names imprinted inside. That's all: their names, embossed in festive green, red, or gold, but not a blessed word of greeting or shred of information. I can gaze lovingly at my friends' names in my address book any old time I please. If I'm going to get mail from them, with a stamp and everything, I'd love to know something about them other than their impeccable taste in greeting cards.
I know, I know - we're busy, we're stressed, we're all doing the best we can. Christmas card shortcuts are necessary. Who has time for anything else?
On the other hand, we also know how it feels to be on the receiving end. It's disheartening to receive pristine cards lacking a human touch or to be merely one of the "dear friends and family" masses. We long for messages meant especially for us, scrawled in genuine handwriting. Even one line: "See you at the reunion," "Enjoy your midlife crisis," or "Smelly gym socks always make me think of you," can make that essential connection.
So, in the spirit of the season, I offer up a two-part wish: that more of us will find time to add personal touches to our holiday greetings; and that we will find it in our hearts to accept - graciously - the well-meant attempts of those wishing to connect with us. Even if that means taking a softer, more tolerant stance on the subject of Christmas letters.
And especially if you're on my list.
• Carolyn Armistead is a mother, voice-over actress, and writer - not just of (humble) Christmas letters, but of magazine and newspaper articles.