When my husband and I had children, I began to write a Christmas letter each year.
Until that point, I had sent handwritten Christmas cards with a short note. Yes, more than 100 of them every year.
I admit it: Christmas letters had just come into vogue and I didn’t like them because I thought they were too impersonal. But life had become busy and I wanted to keep in touch with far-flung family and acquaintances. Social media had not yet entered the picture. Writing a Christmas letter was a convenient solution.
Yet many of the Christmas letters I received were long and hard to read. I was intimidated by the detailed travelogues … lists of another family’s overwhelming accomplishments …
Fortunately, some Christmas letters were fun and authentic. Like the one that announced, “We were the last to find out our son got engaged to a wonderful girl. He scored 10 for choosing well but 2 for parental communication.”
How could my letter be like that?
I knew I was on to something a few years later when a distant family member wrote this on the bottom of his holiday card: “Don’t forget to send us your Christmas letter. We love reading it.”
The biggest Christmas letter mistake is trying to summarize an entire year into one letter (it’s too long). The second biggest mistake is including only big milestones (it’s too impersonal).
Here’s how to avoid both. First, make a list of highlights (a new baby, a job change, graduation, wedding, illness, loss, or other significant life change). Then on your list, include other moments that had meaning for your family (your son’s first soccer goal, the new lawnmower in the garage, the Bible study group you attended this year, the college search that is still in process.)
Then look through your list and ask yourself, “When I think over the last year, which of these items stand out to me? Which do I want to remember? Which marked the year in a unique way?” Choose a handful for your letter: 3-7 should do it. This one of those times when less is more. Really.
You’re not just reporting events as you write a Christmas letter; you’re sharing how those events impacted your life. Imagine you’re talking with a friend over a cup of coffee and then write down what you would say. A conversational voice makes your letter personal with a bit of humor, a surprise, a twist, or a nod to how you feel about the event. This key step infuses your letter with humanity.
Proud? Say so … but always with an eye to how your reader can best hear the news. A good way to do this is to avoid using superlatives, unless you want your letter will be placed in the pile along with the others that were labeled “braggadocious.”
The danger in writing like you talk is in giving too much information. Solution: write a draft, leave it for a day, and then come back to it. If your grandmother could read your Christmas letter and laugh or nod without blushing or cringing, then you’re on the right track.
I like brief, readable letters. Don’t you? People get a lot of mail. Keep your letter to 1 page if you want people to read it. Format it so it is skimmable: use subheads if you write in paragraphs or bullets if you list items. Leave white space to insert a couple of photos. I set up our letter in four quadrants – one for each family member – and use bullet points and photos for each one.
Each year I toss a couple of hard copies of our Christmas letter in a file folder (I save the computer file, too). And the next year, I pull out the folder. It’s fun to look back at years past and be reminded of simple things, like when we painted the sun room or replaced the Civic with the Camry.
That’s what has been a surprise about writing a Christmas letter every year. Our children don’t know it yet, but our letters have given them an irreplaceable gift: they now have a bit of family history.
And it’s personal.
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Content by award-winning content writer and author Kathy Widenhouse, who specializes in writing for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
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