Before assembling that photo brag sheet for your annual Christmas card, consider my friend Carol. In a brief, but alarming moment of imagined retaliation against those "more than you ever wanted to know" newsletters, she pondered printing photos of her recent surgery with a suitable holiday greeting. She might have chosen the God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen lyrics: "Let nothing you dismay."
She resisted, but we have been similarly dismayed by newsletters that catalog, as blessings: SAT scores, bathroom remodelings, salary increases, and vacation condos.
A longtime correspondent of mine from Massachusetts – equally adept at both handwritten letters and e-mail – admits, "I was always tempted to respond with comments like, '[My son] just got out on parole, [my daughter] has been cooking up a new pyramid scheme on the Internet, and the bank is selling the house out from under us.' "
We are out of practice as letter writers, now that e-mail and blogs have taken over as the daily carriers of our casual conversations. Photocopiers, fax machines, e-mail and personal Web pages, with their capacity for speed and mass production, might seem to increase the opportunities for the sweet exchange of letters, but wait! With technology, comes a decrease in intimacy as well as a lack of permanence. Gone is the personal handwriting, the choice of ink, the perfumed or monogrammed paper or the child's smudged fingerprints or drawings. If my father had written an e-card to Santa in 1935, I wouldn't have stumbled across the letter 70 years later and realized that the young boy who asked for a toy sailboat with a jib had later become the boatbuilder and naval architect that I knew.
Fortunately, while first-class mail volume has declined steadily and the use of free, online e-cards is increasing, the snail-mailed greeting in all its permutations – Hallmark or homemade or heartfelt – is hardly a thing of the past. The US Postal Service projects that the volume of individual pieces of mail delivered each day will increase from 703 million to 1 billion during the holidays. And the Greeting Card Association expects 2 billion boxed and individual Christmas cards to be bought this year. Gimmicks like embedded electronic sounds have helped keep those sales healthy, and this year, motion or animation cards are expected to be the big sellers. Oh, joy to the world!
Still, the intimacy of a handwritten letter is as different from the photocopied newsletter or the preprinted card or e-card as a savored, aromatic soak in the tub is from a quick shower.
Scott Simmons of Rockland, Maine, treasures a packet of letters from 1899, written by his great-great-grandfather, Cornelius VanHerwerden. The script runs both horizontally and vertically across the page, and begins: "My dear wife and children, As it is about time for Christmas and I can't be with you on that pleasant day, don't forget that I am always with you in mind and prayer." Generations to come may hope you'll heed the proverb: "The word that is heard perishes, but the letter that is written remains."
In the 1940 movie, "The Letter," Bette Davis played a young housewife whose epistolary evidence might convict her of murder. Her husband's lawyer comments, "Strange that a man can live with a woman for 10 years and not know the first thing about her." If her letters had been addressed to her husband, it might have been a different story. Similarly, the English poet Samuel Johnson wrote, "In a man's letters, you know, madam, his soul lies naked."
A technical writer friend of mine comments, "When someone just sends a card with a signature I always want more ... but not TOO much more! I want at least a line of news about the sender."
My grandfather, a prolific letter writer – his updated "Letters of E.B. White" goes into paperback this month – managed a personalized, printed card in 1950 with his own verse and a drawing of his dachshund puppy descending steep stairs – a feat that occasionally resulted in a nose dive.
For the less poetic among us, how do we hit the right balance of pithy holiday cheer and annual wrap-up? Too often, the result is a laundry list of highlights instead of a heartfelt letter.
Take a tip from the technical writer: "My favorite greetings are brief and humorous. One friend usually takes one little incident from her year and writes about it with wit and grace. These snippets are so engaging I often read them several times. Another letter we look forward to is from a family of four whose brief letter often reveals each person's current favorite movie or book."
Adding creative spark to a charmed life also helps. Dan Bookham, development coordinator for a coastal Maine nonprofit, receives greetings from friends overseas: "[They] have the most wonderful A.A. Milne life. They live in an old vicarage with ample gardens in a small English village.... The annual letter is more in the spirit of Chekhov than the 100 Acre Wood, however. 'The cat died half way through its worming. They inadvertently introduced the Irish potato blight to the whole village, leading to old Mrs. Miggins almost expiring due to famine.... Their trip to Morocco was ruined by a sirocco....' It is as if Eeyore could write."
When December is packed with the children's holiday recitals, the church bazaar, and extended family visits, who has leisure to pen personal letters? Maybe it's just a matter of timing.
A Camden, Maine, family, having lived in many other parts of the world, suggests: "As for us, we avoid sending cards to distant friends during the holidays. We send them when we imagine people's mailboxes are feeling a bit hungry – say in March or October. This gives people a lift (we hope!) when they least expect it, and it takes some of the frenzy out of our holiday season."
For those who merit the gift of your time, consider making letter writing the gift that keeps on giving. Assemble a correspondence kit for loved ones far away. Include a new address book, address labels, personalized photo stamps, postcards to be watercolored or monogrammed stationery, assortments of greeting cards from UNICEF, new fountain pens and colored inks, or even sealing wax. Add a book of letters, for a little inspiration. Consider the letters of great artists or writers or historical figures. Dorie McCullough Lawson's book, "Posterity – Letters of Great Americans to Their Children" has examples from first lady Abigail Adams to illustrator N.C. Wyeth.
Then put on the Christmas carols, pour yourself an eggnog, open your desk and your heart, and give yourself a moment of solitude to pen your holiday greetings. Replace the emptiness of junk mail or the impersonality of e-cards with the gratifying connection of a written conversation, and you will feel yourself in the good company of the recipients.
Imagine the anticipatory frisson that comes when your loved ones see your handwriting on an envelope in their mailbox. As Voltaire remarked, "The post is the consolation of life."