In these polarised times, one truth can be relied upon to unite the British commentariat: Christmas letters are ghastly. Writing in Country Life magazine, Kit Hesketh-Harvey advised being “alert enough to shake the card out directly over the recycling bin”. The late Simon Hoggart collected the most execrable family newsletters he could harvest from readers of The Guardian and published them for the world’s amusement. Punctuation pundit Lynne Truss composed “revenge” letters, sending up the vanity and vacuity of it all.
A bad Christmas letter is very bad indeed, but I wonder about all this mockery. The logic of such letters is straightforward enough: to convey some information about your life to someone you rarely see but whom you hope might care, without having to repeat yourself a hundred times. If in fact they do not care at all, there is a problem, but the newsletter is not it.
The simplest alternative, a tasteful Christmas card with a printed greeting and an unintelligible signature, is an odd gesture. It conveys almost no information beyond the fact that some time and expense have been invested.
Admittedly, content-free messages are common enough. Linguists use the term “phatic communication” to describe everything from “How’s it going?” to a poke on Facebook. (Remember Facebook pokes?) It is always alarming to greet someone who misinterprets “How are you?” as a request for information; instead, these are acts that maintain social bonds. But if a connection endures in the form of nothing more than an exchange of almost-blank cards once a year, one has to suspect that everyone’s time is being wasted.
So the idea of sending a little update tucked into the card makes perfect sense. Yet the reality often disappoints. Why?
The genre is a difficult one. A classic holiday letter must — like a Facebook post — mean something sensible to a wide variety of recipients. Too upbeat and it feels boastful or fake. Share unpleasant details and it’s Too Much Information. Keep it light and you risk seeming banal. Brevity can confuse. Prolixity is worse. Even for a skilled writer this is a challenging brief, and neither you nor I are Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde. And yet some of us persist.
In an intriguing study, published in 2000 in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, three sociologists investigated “why it is that these letters seem both to irritate readers and to enjoy enduring popularity”. The researchers, Stephen Banks, Esther Louie and Martha Einerson, assembled 128 letters and analysed their contents using 80 labels and 13 topic groups. The most common topics were: “positive experience/adventure”; “I/we have achieved”; and “interpersonal connectedness”, which ranged from invitations to visit to describing membership of a church or a club. General expressions of good news such as a birth or marriage were barely more common than expressions of bad news such as divorce, death or ill health — but when people did write about bad news, they generally attempted to put a brave face on it.
What are people doing here? They are telling a story about themselves, of challenges overcome and of a good and upright life well lived. The story will often be about personal relationships, be phrased in a way that assumes a personal relationship (“We had to cut down the big tree in front of the house” rather than “a big tree in front of our house”) and will gesture towards a personal relationship (“I am thinking of you and your loved ones”). And yet there is nothing personal about it: everyone gets the same text.
Social media can be vainer and more vacuous than any newsletter, and it is distracting into the bargain. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, data scientist and author of Everybody Lies, points out the sharp distinction between Google searches and Facebook posts. A sentence in a Facebook post beginning “My husband is . .. ” will tend to continue with “the greatest” or “my best friend”. A Google search beginning “Is my husband . . . ” usually continues “gay” or “a jerk”. What we say proudly on Facebook is very different from what we whisper to Google.
And yet social media allows some semblance of dialogue. When your friend declares that their husband is the greatest, you may privately roll your eyes but you are at least invited to chip in with your cheery response. The stories we tell in Christmas newsletters offer no such option.
Personally, I enjoy the few newsletters I receive. Up to a point, I might even enjoy receiving more. But my own practice is a little different; I do send typed letters with Christmas cards, and of course those letters deploy plenty of cut-and-paste. (Etiquette manuals demand a handwritten note; surely only the idle rich have time for such archaisms.) But each letter is addressed to a particular person and at least some of it is written for them and them alone. No doubt I overrate my ability to navigate the shoals of inanity and pride. But I hope that some of these letters are read with the spirit of seasonal goodwill with which they are sent.
And for those who are determined to weave a narrative that their friends enjoy, there is always the example of Philip Van Doren Stern, who wrote a short story, failed to find any outlet for it and so, in 1943, printed 200 copies and sent them to friends as a Christmas gift. That story became the film It’s a Wonderful Life. In the realm of seasonal storytelling, the bar has been set high.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 November 2020.
My new book is How To Make The World Add Up. “Fabulously readable, lucid, witty and authoritative.” – Stephen Fry
“Powerful, persuasive, and in these truth-defying times, indispensable” – Caroline Criado Perez