Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Help Me Out Here: Is The Family Christmas Letter A Uniquely American Tradition?

Every year since my husband and I started having babies, I have written and mailed a family Christmas letter. The first year, I handwrote it since we didn't have a home computer and I traced our infant son's hand in the letter. For me, our first letter was a sign I really was a grown up - with a husband, a baby, a washing machine and an annual Christmas letter.

Today, I emailed this year's letter to a dear friend, a graduate student who has moved home to Milan.

"Thanks for the letter!" she emailed back. "Is it an American tradition? I've never read one before."

Gee, I have no clue. I am hoping some of my international readers (there are two or three of you, right?) might clue me in. Apparently, Italians don't write annual Christmas letters. Maybe Americans are prone to them because we move, on average, every five years to new communities?

I googled "Christmas letters" "origin of Christmas letters" "history of Christmas letter tradition" and so on and came up empty handed. I did find tons of sites with advice to Christmas letter writers and free templates. And ads like this one, tucked between ads on how to bake the perfect cookie and be the perfect hostess. Really people? I could not be bothered.

Our free Christmas letter template designs feature colorful borders, pretty frames to put family photos in, and plenty of space for writing your yearly Christmas letter.

My focus is on the content of my annual letters; I try not to brag, I try to be a bit unconventional in the telling, and above all I try to capture a flavor of our family life. Writing these letters, which I tuck into mass-produced Christmas cards, allows me reflect on our family life - our adventures, our struggles and our triumphs. I don't send these letters to neighbors or anyone else who has spent time with us throughout the year; out-of-town relatives and friends are the usual recipients. I eschew the cutesy borders and colored paper. My letters are printed on plain white paper, though I have been know to add colored font or digital photos to the letters.

I've been reading these letters ever since I could read: I fondly remember as a child sitting in my parents' living room, rifling through dozens of their Christmas cards every December and reading these letters from all across the country. Often, I wouldn't even know the families, but these peeks into personal lives fascinated me.

My hunch is, as we all become more connected through social media, this tradition will disappear. But for now, I have some  questions for you, dear readers:
  • Do you know the origin of this tradition? 
  • Is it a uniquely American phenomenon?
  • Do you send family Christmas letters? 
  • Do you like receiving them? 

Merriest of days!


  1. Don't know the answers to your questions, but I LOVE writing a Holiday letter every year and I generally LOVE reading them. There is a fine line between "long enough" and "too long" -- I know it when I see it, but I cannot describe it. :)

  2. @Elaine: Your letter is one I look forward to each year. The only letters I do not enjoy are the ones where the writer tries to write a rhyming poem. It feels too forced to me.

  3. Every time a Christmas letter would come in the mail, my parents would gripe about how the letter was just a lot of bragging. There may have been one or two that did not incur the usual negative comments. Growing up a slightly hyper critical environment, I've never saw much merit in them until a friend wrote one that was so refreshing, it made me see how a Christmas letter doesn't have to be a brag page to show up your relatives and friends or try to prove something. It can be an honest reflection of your home- like you said.
    This year was the first year I wrote a (mini) Christmas letter complete with the joys and *minor* and normal suffering that every parent under goes. However, I did put it in the light that this is what love is all about. I also included little bits of new things going on with our family. It was just informational enough, I think. I don't know that I will send one every year, but I did get a good response, so maybe I will.

  4. @Sarah: sounds like a great new tradition!

  5. I have never written a Christmas Letter. Well last year I wrote a fake one to my Uncle since he has had a tradition of writing a Christmas letter and his may be profound or humorous or both.

  6. I write an annual family newsletter and have since the kids were born. However, our family has moved 15 times in 15 years and we have family and friends all over the world. For many of the recipients, it is the only time we communicate each year and so I include photos of the kids and our family's activities throughout the year. Since I don't post photos of my kids on my social network site, due to my (paranoid?) privacy issues, this allows them to see what the kids look like now. I keep it to one page, front and back in a newsletter format/template, with headlines, short articles and lots of photos. I've always had good response from those who get it (maybe those who don't enjoy reading it just "deep 6" it without telling me. ;-)) Also, I keep copies for the kids' baby books as a tale of our family's history for when they're older. (I tried keeping journals for each of them but due to time, that practice fell by the wayside.) Hope this is helpful. :-) BTW, I enjoy your blog! Merry Christmas!

  7. It's quite common in Canada as well. :) I know I enjoy reading them for the most part although due to facebook and blogs, there isn't so much need for a lengthy informative letter these days as there was when maybe it was the only news you had of someone all year. I think it's a nice thing to do though and no doubt appreciated. :)