Sunday, 23 December 2012

On Christmas letters

Bella writes: Just what's so terrible about Christmas round robin letters? It's increasingly fashionable to scoff at them. But with a glass and a half of mulled wine in my belly, I say: Christmas letters, I bloody love 'em.

I've sent out my round robin this year, and have been the grateful recipient of eight so far. They keep me up-to-date with my widely scattered friends and family.

Yes, they are very easy to mock. Writer Lynn Truss joined in the fun on BBC Radio 4 this week - an imagined response to an imaginary letter. But really there's no need to make up the content of these letters - the real ones are far funnier.

Their shortcomings are obvious: if the writer has achieved a lot, the reader feels inadequate. If the writer shares bad news ... well, it's a downer, man. And if the writer simply catalogues their favourite TV shows, the trials of their daily commute or the intricate details of a day job, the reader is bored.
Worst, the letters often swerve from the profound (death a of a close relative) to the mundane (choice of new kitchen cupboards/habits of pet hamster) with barely a punctuation mark between them, as if the writer weighs them equally.

The Guardian's Simon Hoggart has collected examples of Christmas letters for almost a decade. "Many people clearly enjoy detailing every single thing that went wrong with their lives," he writes, "If the recipient barely knows them, this can, I regret to report, be unintentionally hilarious." (See his books and a selection of columns online and here.)

There is something to learn here about the practice of writing. There are many pitfalls to writing about our own lives - and Christmas letter writers appear to fall into most of them. So how do I provoke the desired reaction in my reader? How do I avoid boring, sounding pretentious or full of self pity?

The trouble is, we're too close to the events we write about. If I sit down in late November to write a Christmas letter, how can I truly weigh up the importance of any single event in the preceding eleven months? In the curve of my life so far, years are largely irrelevant. What is a year anyway, but an arbitrary chunk of time defined for the convenience of railway timetables, international business and calendar makers? In the course of my life, a year rarely stands out: rather, what stands out is a collection of moments or images: being stuck up a cliff with my best friend at age 16; a romantic encounter in front of the freezer compartment of an all night store; the first time I held my newborn child.

Our lives don't have narrative shape, but the great writers of memoir (I'm thinking Joan Didion in particular) know that to string a narrative out of a life, we need to seek and select those jewel-like moments and thread them together. The year they occurred and even the order in which they happened are probably irrelevant.

A year is neither here nor there, it's just a collection of days crammed full of stuff. The place for that 'stuff', I would suggest, is a journal: a private space to mull over and record the raw material of life.

But the Christmas letter writer must pick over that raw material prematurely, and still hope to serve up an appetising dish. Yup, the problem's in the form itself.

But I still love to read and write these letters - because at heart they are a human and imperfect attempt to communicate. Next year however, I will be taking into account the best advice I've read on the subject: "Spreading good cheer is not about you, it’s about making your friends and family feel good about themselves." This comes from Leslie Lehr, razor sharp writer and teacher - read her full article here.

Happy holidays everyone.

PS If you really want to appall your friends and family, try this instant Christmas letter generator. Apologies to Mr Dickens. You have been warned.

1 comment:

  1. Christmas letters are a great way to keep in touch with the people who are woven into the tapestry of your life. They help you to consider who and what are important to you--and they brighten a sometimes dark, cold, and otherwise dreary season!