Remember the Christmas Newsletter? You know, that single page, single spaced sheet printed on red or green or some other festively bordered piece of paper, tri-folded and tucked in with a family picture where everyone is color-coordinated in fall or winter fashion?
For those of you not familiar with the tradition of the Christmas, Holiday Letter, or Family Newsletter, it started sometime in the 1940s as a supplement to the annual Christmas card. Post-World War II saw one of the largest relocations of the United States population since the Dust Bowl nearly two decades before. Compared to the 1920s, typewriters were much more prevalent as was carbon-copy technology, that ancient method of placing a sheet of ultra-thin paper between two pieces of regular paper so you could type up to three copies at a time. Kind of gives you a fresh appreciation for the hard drive. Of course, this method was too time consuming for any office assistant. So, in the 1960s, the Xerox came along and made it easier to crank out several dozen copies of any document, including this newsletter, thereby enabling folks to send this Yuletide greeting across the country.
Of course, the intention is to update far-flung family and friends on what has transpired over the previous year with spouse and kids and, of course, the writer. Sometimes it’s exciting, like the announcement of a recent addition to a family, or an anticipated one, status of various other children within the family, the grade they are in, what sports they are currently striving at, and on rare occasion, an update on things not going the best, such as a fight with cancer or other medical problems.
The unwritten rule for my family, immediate and very possibly extended, was that nothing negative ever goes into the Letter, and by negative, I mean anything that could even possibly shed anything other than the best light on the parents primarily and the family as a whole.
What started as a blanket letter to everyone known to the family, naturally morphed into a silent game of one-upmanship among the Wendalls. First point was awarded to the one of the eight siblings which got their cards out first and the second point was awarded for the first to arrive. Third point went to the one whose letters got delivered first. The trick was they couldn’t arrive before Thanksgiving. One had to know the exact en route time between their address and the recipients, count back the days before Thanksgiving, and drop each letter into the mailbox on the appropriate day. One year, Aunt Jeanie mailed hers a day early and ended up being disqualified entirely when Grandma Wendall found it in the mail Thanksgiving Eve.
That event permanently scarred my dad who struggled with such points of failure. It was one thing to be fouled out of a game, it was another to be benched on a technicality. The end result was he never got his Letter out on time. My mother didn’t see the point of the competition, and when one of the siblings decided to ditch the whole shipment competition the whole letter turned into a brag fest where siblings pitted cousins against each other. I think this shift changed somewhere around the time the last of the eligible sisters to get married had her first kid, but that was a long time ago, and I think I blocked most of it out because the years that followed were enough to stuff my memory with more interesting events.
My first hint that the card arrived was an increase in frequency of comments like, “I’d be happy if my kids could just consistently make ‘A’s in school,” and “I wish you would just TRY at basketball. Maybe Mister Anders would let you off the bench.” Meanwhile, my cousins were taking AP classes in between starting any of the sports games they participated in.
Dad especially coveted his older brother’s family. Granted Uncle George had five years and two kids head start on Dad, but I still had to suffer competition with them up to the point where Uncle George cheated on his wife with a younger woman then got divorced.
But long before that point, the Newsletter Game took on a second level, the battle of wills between me and Dad. His workload slowly increased through my junior high years, and by the time I emerged into my freshman year of High School, the delegate came out and, to save time, I was assigned the task of writing the Newsletter.
Fifteen-year-old me felt thrilled to possess such a responsibility. For the first time, my ability to tell stories could be known! This one thing that I was really good at could shine out amid a collection of newsletters which looked like they were selected from a McDonald’s Kid’s menu of choices complete with sentence structure and style which would fit nicely into an eight grade essay competition! I wasn’t a good singer, I sat bench in sports, and my grades lingered at the top of “B” airspace, but this I knew I was good at! In hind-sight, I think Dad just wanted me to practice typing.
I got it back a couple days later with the request to rewrite it “without the flowery prose and fluff.” The second draft met with the same fate as the first. In the third, I broke down and resorted to mimicking the passive verb and few adjectives of the other letters just to get it over with. No feedback on the quality of the letter came around. So I decided to try that again the following year when I again received the assignment, and again my junior year. By my senior year, not only did I have enough other things on my plate to excuse me from Thanksgiving Dinner itself, I was getting smart enough to feel insulted that following my natural aptitude and skill was somehow something to be ashamed of.
So, I used the excuse that I didn’t have the time, which turned out to not qualify as an excuse at all. The week before Christmas, Dad asked Mom if the letters had gotten mailed. Thus it was revealed that I had failed to fulfill my duty and got a couple day grace period from hearing Dad speak to me. I think he just decided to write it that year himself.
I didn’t hear from him about the Newsletter again for a year or two. Then one day ahead of Thanksgiving break, Mom mentioned that I needed to write a paragraph about myself for the letter. As one who thought of my life as barely started with adventure awaiting just past the college’s “EXIT” door, the simple act of moving two states away to continue school seemed minor. I don’t remember what I wrote, but what made it into the final draft consisted of two sentences. From there on as my life got more interesting, my paragraph stayed the same length. After college, my paragraph consisted of “Started the year at____ job. Went to _____ for summer job. Finished the year working at _____.” Three sentences into which my relatives who cared enough to notice read, “Still not married and bringing us grandchildren.” It didn’t matter that I’d served on crews responding to hurricanes, wildfires and the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, I had not picked a man, a nun’s habit, a nurse’s uniform or a teacher’s ruler, and that was all that counted! Under the revised game rules, my cousin’s and I earned our parents points based on marriage, career choice which fell into the religious, medical or educational categories only. Bonus points were issued for each child we had, which worked out nicely for my cousin who’s two years younger than me and expecting his sixth kid. He hit mid-life crisis at 30, but he made fun of me for living life on my terms. So, I don’t exactly feel sorry for him.
About a decade ago, I started to wonder when I’d get dropped off the letter and spared the humiliation of “failure” which seemed to gain the family negative points every year. Finally, I shut out the whole thing and managed to ignore the Newsletter for many years.
Then the family followed me out west and the delegating started all over again. My first attempt was so good that I didn’t have to write a second draft. When I showed up after work one day, Mom had made the copies. My two page work magically fit on one page!
The year after that, we went back to the one paragraph thing where I and each of my siblings had to write about ourselves. When I asked what he wanted in it, Dad essentially said, “Anything you want, but don’t say anything about the fire department.”
That brought my brain and my mood to a screeching halt.
“Why? That’s the only interesting thing I’ve done this year!” And it was, other than taking a job as a glorified taxi driver for the local hospital where I was run like a machine expected to be on call 24/7 and still function at top capacity with zero sleep. My work with the volunteer fire department was the silver lining in an otherwise painful part of my life, and here I was being told I couldn’t take pride in that work. Either way, I wasn’t allowed to write about it. So I told him he could just write that I worked for the hospital and left it at that. As far as I know, that was the last time I was mentioned in the family letter.
Now, as letters drift in once or twice a year, the thought crosses my mind to write a letter the way I have tried writing it so many times before, but the end result of my work would scandalize my family simply because I would have fun with it. On one hand, why should I care? On the other, my mother reads these blogs. One of these years I will do it. After all, I might not be an MD or NP making close to six figures a year, but I’m also not squirming in my skin wishing I’d traveled more in my teens, scheming about how to pay for a 1976 Chevy Corvette to restore, or wishing I had picked a different line of work from the get-go.
Instead, I hope Facebook’s wonderful ability to update all those great folks who care to monitor my activities, I feel less pressured to send out a letter. For those few hearty souls who cling to this 80-year-old tradition of offering a friendly update to your family and friends, good for you! But as for any family members who have found my address through some very dedicated sleuthing, I will be hearing your letter read by Abby from Mr. Iglesias.
And for everyone else, near, far and in between, Happy Holidays! May the New Year bring you health, meaning and satisfaction in all parts of your life! Most of all, may 2021 bring an end to Covid life!