The Death of Christmas Newsletters

Christmas sells lots of things, but brutal reality is not one of them—it’s bad for business.

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MERRIFIELD, VA - DECEMBER 20:  Pieces of mail wait to be sorted at the Merrifield Postal Center December 20, 2004 in Merrifield, Virginia. The Monday before Christmas is the busiest day of the year for the Postal Service.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
MERRIFIELD, VA – DECEMBER 20: Pieces of mail wait to be sorted at the Merrifield Postal Center December 20, 2004 in Merrifield, Virginia. The Monday before Christmas is the busiest day of the year for the Postal Service. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Because I’m old, I remember as a kid reading Christmas newsletters from family and friends and folks I didn’t know at all. I’m talking the highly detailed, 1.8 billion-word Yuletide manifestos updating everyone on Uncle Earl’s dialysis treatments in Scottsdale and cousin Jeff’s junior college hockey season in Newark and every square mile of mundane information in between. Looking back at that process now—in our world of Instagram and FaceSnap and the Twitter, where our daily goings-on are posted continuously—the whole thing seems so remarkably, impossibly foreign that I can’t believe I was alive in its heyday. The very idea of a family newsletter feels like a wildly outdated construct—like talking to people on the telephone. Or scurvy.

They’re the rolling-a-hoop-with-a-stick of Christmas traditions.

That said, good on you if you still hammer those things out. Really. You’re a grittier, more old-timey family man than I am because I’m not doing that. There’s no chance. I’m not cranking out a 19-chapter breakdown of everything that went on in my boring extended family this year, and more importantly, nobody needs to suffer the dreary hardships of reading it.

Instead, my wife and I do what everyone else our age does: we whip up postcards containing the least-terrible picture from this year’s miserable family photo shoot and slap a “PEACE” or “JOY” or whatever on there in sparkly, whimsical letters and call it a day. No muss, no 40,000-word subsections on Aunt Claire’s lumbar-fusion surgery. Thanks, TinyPrints.com!!

This is simply the way of my people, for better or worse. (With “my people” meaning exhausted 40-year-old parents.) Of course, it’s all a farce—but so what? We all KNOW it’s a farce. We’re all in on it, so it’s a victimless farce. I see your perfectly dressed, perfectly groomed kids sitting peacefully atop a pile of autumn leaves or the beach in Siesta Key in perfect, professional lighting—not trying to kill each other with makeshift medieval weaponry—and you see mine. We both know what the other 99.999999999996 percent of that wretched hour entailed: pure turmoil cooked in tension and white-knuckle stress, probably not unlike the Gemini IV space capsule reentering the atmosphere. Tears were shed. Fights broke out. There was widespread pouting. One kid power-slid through the grass and muddied up the linen J. Crew trousers he’d otherwise never be wearing; this caused Mom to silently and angrily load a shotgun nobody knew she had in the van. These are anxious, turbulent events. They always are.

The uneasiness of it, I think, stems from wanting to get it perfect—from that desire to project to friends and family the illusion that we’ve got it all figured out, that we’re not a weird grease-fire of chaos and confusion and uncertainty on most days. Our Christmas card is a carefully chosen, professionally photographed disguise. A filter, really. A filter with sparkly letters.

It’s no different than everything else everyone puts on social media.

And quit shaking your head like you’re any different, Aunt Deborah! Your six-volume Christmas newsletter in 1983 was the exact same thing. (Only boring-er!) ALL newsletters were. They were nature’s first social media platform. They were carefully chosen, meticulously written projections of normalcy and contentment and humor buried in a million cubic yards of unimportant minutiae. But those things conveniently left out the messier truths of what really went down in the family that year: how Uncle Dale began drinking a pint of vodka for breakfast every morning; Second-Cousin Cindy’s terrible, no-good yeast infection; Brother Bill’s affair with the court stenographer, and so forth. A written filter, as it were. A disguise in Tahoma 12-point. Nothing new under the North Star, gang.

So when you see my Christmas card and I see yours—and when some poor bastard has to slog through Aunt Gertie’s thousand-page newsletter—we can all nod and wink at each other and know that we’re seeing a picture, but not the whole picture. A story, but not all of it. Christmas sells lots of things, but brutal reality is not one of them—it’s bad for business. No, we’re seeing the suspension of reality. We’re seeing the magic! We’re seeing Santa and flying reindeer and impeccably behaved kids in impeccably stylish clothes not throat-punching each other in the fading Florida sunlight.

(Merry Christmas, everyone!)

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