How not to write a tone-deaf holiday letter in 2020

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Mentioning your zero-emissions luxury vehicle when friends have zero-admissions to their bank account is probably not the best move.

Each December, I revel in the veritable cornucopia of holiday cards: photos of fat Santa babies and reindeer-cats; impressively embossed envelopes that cost more than my station wagon; letters rife with humblebrag and sins of omission.

In 2020, though, the very notion of a holiday card is a slippery fish. This year we all had to take a bite of a giant garbage sandwich. Some of our sandwiches were double-stacked. Some came with a garbage milkshake chaser. Some of us were afraid to ask if we could get fries with that. However supersized your unhappy meal, you survived. And that — merely the fact that you survived — is worth sharing and sending glad tidings to your near and dear.

If you are in the habit of sending a mass-produced holiday newsletter, may I suggest particular attention be paid this year to tone. The 19th Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published before the year of the global hellscape, actually offers guidance for “holiday newsletters.”

The ghost of Ms. Post suggests keeping your letter to one page or less (she does not mention how she haunts the authors of the four-pagers, because Post the Ghost is a classy apparition). She emphasizes sharing news that’s “positive but not too personal,” such as a child’s acceptance to a university, not her SAT scores.

The Emily Post Institute reports that 53% of its survey respondents like the annual wrap-up report tucked into holiday cards, whereas 47% do not. No room for ambivalence, apparently, so be ye deliberate about your letter’s contents.

If you are the holiday letter scribe, strive to be a little less Clark Griswold, and a little more Hermey the Elf. Not everyone one wants to know about your visions for the backyard pool. However, most of your readership can relate to feeling stuck in one’s job, or being anxious all the time, or having great hair but so little opportunity to show it off (while you shelter in place, for example). No need to oversell the jolly. We’re all doing well to ration our dwindling supply of Xanax.

Strive to be mindful that your merry message may be met with envy or ill-will (see also: Year of the McGarbage Sandwich) or pain. This is likely a reflection of the state of our weary souls after much loss, or our sleeplessness due to impulsively adopting a pandemic puppy.

Speaking of puppies, or grumpy old dogs, or faux-antlered pets, we want to see them and their handler(s). If photo cards are your jam, then there’s no reason to dispense with the tradition. Folks genuinely like to see your growing kids and/or your growing waistline. It’s not necessary to Photoshop a dumpster fire into the backdrop of your family photo. Its presence in both the foreground and background are implied. You need not coordinate Christmas jammies with matching masks to drive home the point that your family has been Team Fauci. Share the latest snap of you and yours and consider it a victory if everyone is wearing pants (or at least that you figured out the crop tool).

Christmas specifically has evolved as a holiday since it was first recognized as a time for gifts and greetings, writes social historian Judith Flanders in her book Christmas, a Biography. It was once a time when the nobility displayed wealth to their dependents but the holiday eventually became children-centric.

Flanders believes that Christmas has survived and thrived because, “ultimately, Christmas is not what is, or even has been, but what we hope for.” I think the same goes for our holiday cards and letters in a year that has not been what anyone expected, but one that is not devoid of hope. Hope that our loved ones remain safe and well, and we wish them all this and more in the year to come (preferably punctuated with “ya filthy animal” whenever possible).

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