Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Confessional: The Annual Holiday Letter

One of the things I love about Christmastime is mail. I've been a fan of good old fashioned snail mail since I was a kid, when I had multiple pen pals, and I still love writing a letter to send someone special. Getting cards from people I haven't heard from since last year is a holiday highlight for me.

Every December during childhood my family received cards, updated photos, and newsletters which we collected in a basket. As kids, my siblings and I actually fought over who got to cross the street to the mail box and bring back an armload of envelopes. Eventually, the squabbles progressed to the point that our parents assigned us each a day of the week to get the mail: five kids and five weekdays meant we each got one turn a week. Mom’s turn was Saturday (though I suspect having an assigned day had more to do with reducing fights than Mom having an equally insatiable desire to collect the mail). We’d tear open the foil-lined envelopes, trying to save the return address for our own mailing list, and scan the contents for photos of our cousins, stories from friends we hadn’t heard yet, or personal handwritten messages.

The updates ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. Friends’ of our parents would recount their in-laws surgeries. Relatives we’d never met wrote about pets that had died. We read about trips and achievements and weddings and births. For a homeschooling family without a television, this was equivalent to Prime Time. Family pictures were my favorite. I’d compare how our friends had changed in the course of a year and wonder how different we looked. I would re-read the letters in greater detail throughout the month of December. After Christmas, we pulled one card out of the basket each morning starting January first and prayed for family and friends one by one. Some years we had so many cards that we were still praying into the summer.

We sent a Christmas letter every year, too. All seven of us contributed a little blurb outlining our adventures of the previous 12 months. Sometimes Mom or Dad would interview us and quote us verbatim. Other times, the letter would be written in all one voice, and we were represented by a parent’s perspective alone. In high school, as the oldest, I took on the family newsletter. I made sure each member approved of my synopsis before mass mailing. It got tricky. Revision after revision, there was less my brothers and sister were willing to publish about themselves the older we got. I resorted to listing hobbies and future ambitions.

Taking a family photo had special significance to me, too. I assumed our photograph would be scrutinized just as closely as the pictures we received. I’d start asking my parents as early as October if we could have a family picture taken. I’d secretly start campaigning for matching outfits or a color scheme to adhere to, knowing my brothers and sister would balk if they knew the imposed dress-code came from within their own ranks, not from our parents. I wanted our Christmas letter to represent the best version of us, and saw our annual mailing as a family year book to showcase the brightest and finest.

I have a lot of positive associations with keeping in touch and heralding good news (even if it's the embellished version). Here's my confession: I like visiting the post office in December. Yes, it's chaotic and crowded, and usually requires waiting in line. I know postal workers are not known for their warmth or efficiency. I'm aware that members of the public get cranky and impatient at the holidays. Regardless, there's something invigorating about the experience. It’s at the post office that I use a tangible sheet of paper and an envelope to communicate something as elusive as human connection and as abstract as a friendly sentiment.

Today for example, in line with a parcel and a rubber-banded bundle of cards to mail, I gazed at all the packaging supplies, the clear mailing tape, the priority stickers, bubble wrap, colored mailers, never-before-used boxes (what luxury) and the beautiful miniature artwork in the display case full of stamps. My pulse quickened. I observed the people in line with me, all participating in the unwritten social rule of seasonal generosity. One woman pushed a tower of boxes along the countertop as she moved closer to the front of the line. A whole family stepped to the counter with a box and translated for one another as the post master explained international shipping rates. A man bought festive postage by the roll (at least one hundred names on his mailing list!). I thought of all the lucky recipients. I imagined bright eyes and eager hands as packages arrive at their destination.

Even adults get to experience the anticipation and enjoyment of a child when it comes to mail, or a present delivered to the front door, addressed with your very own name. I still get a little bit of that Christmas morning excitement when I open holiday cards. When I check the mail today I'll look for your return address and hope you sent a photo.

1 comment:

  1. I love this, Emily. I wonder what changes in the content of a communication when the medium changes? I actually feel giddy when I check my email sometimes, but there's rarely anything in my "in" box to write home about....