This greeting is coming to you pretty late this year. Not sure why I’ve had such a difficult time putting down my thoughts for 2009, so I turned to Psychology Today to get some perspective. The actual article, titled “Your year in review: How to write and read holiday letters,” follows. It turns out that apparently a holiday letter is an exercise in self-loathing. I did note some thoughts as I was reading it.
Each year at this time many of us are confronted (“confronted” seems like a strong word when you’re talking holiday letters) with the daunting task of crafting our personal year in review in the form of the (some may say infamous) holiday letter. Perhaps yours is not only written (uh, no) by now but is also Pulitzer-prize worthy (well, I don’t like to boast…). But, if like many of us, you find this to be an arduous chore that you procrastinate until the last respectable day that it can still bear the postmark of the current year, maybe there’s a reason (there is, actually—10 hour work days, four kids, massive piles of laundry).
Let’s say it’s simple procrastination (duh). You dislike writing (no, that’s not it), you dislike deadlines (no, I thrive on deadlines), it’s a hectic time of year (again, duh), and the holiday letter is the easiest chore to put to the end of your to-do list (no, I wouldn’t say it’s at the end—it’s ahead of re-grouting my shower, organizing my kitchen cabinets so random Tupperware lids don’t fall on my head every time I open them, and hauling my 18 year-old defunct VCR to the recycling center). There are some practical solutions to this problem. One is to edit last year’s letter (My life wasn’t that exciting LAST year, why would someone want to read a rehashed version?). If you can locate it on your hard drive (Well, that’s going to be an issue because my old computer has more viruses than a $20 hooker. Oh, there’s another concern—should the word “hooker” appear in a holiday letter?), pull it up on your screen, add a few clicks here and there, upload a new photo, and you’re halfway there, ready to hit the print button in about 20 minutes (Again, not so simple. My printer got unmapped and I haven’t had time to resolve the problem.).
What if the problem is not that simple? What if you’ve been dreading this moment when you would have to confess to everyone you know that it was, in reality, not such a great year (Why would you need to confess that? It’s called lying, people…look into it.). Perhaps you lost a job (Nope, that comes in a couple more years when the government takes over all private industry.), didn’t get the promotion you were so sure you’d get one year ago (Is anyone getting promoted this year?), your child failed to get into or failed out of college (“Johnny is no longer attending St. Expensiva Private University after that unfortunate incident with the dean, the ferret and all of those laxatives. In January he starts a new semester at the technical institute in the strip mall next to the new Subway and the 24-hour check cashing place.”), or you in general feel that you didn’t have a particularly remarkable year that is worth commemorating (Am I reading a Charlie Brown script here?). Or perhaps your news isn’t so good: you lost a close relative (“The rheumatism finally took Aunt Hilda to Jesus.”) or you are grappling with a major illness. How can you write a letter that focuses on loss, disappointment, or failure (Seriously, who does that? “Happy Holidays everyone, if you don’t hear from me next year it’s because I jumped off a bridge.”)?
The job is made more difficult by the letters already streaming into your mailbox from those punctual friends of yours who, though you only communicate with once a year, never seem to run out of fascinating stories (Yeah, but a trip to Branson, Missouri to see Yakov Smirnoff is not “fascinating.”) about their exploits and those of their children (frauds), grandchildren (brats), and pets (fleas). You know the letters. Mini-novels crammed into 8 point font so that every juicy detail can be retold in all its glory. The couple’s daughter who held down a full-time managerial job (Big deal, any idiot can do that…look at me!), bought a small mansion in a lush suburb (probably has dry rot), learned Mandarin Chinese, has three children ready to graduate from preschool with advanced degrees, and on the side has personally overseen the construction of seven quilts, three major charity events (Helping your deadbeat cousin move back in with his parents doesn’t constitute a “charity event.”), and presides over the local school council. Reading about these exploits can only make you feel worse (that’s assuming one’s self-worth is tied into material goods and success). So, be glad that your friend is doing well, but don’t obsess over the details of that letter because it will only complicate the task ahead.
So it is possible that feelings of inadequacy (Wow, this article took a hard left. Now I’m inadequate?), particularly when you compare yourself to your friends, that are causing your writer’s block. How can your year’s accomplishments, or lack thereof (Bite me, Psychology Today!), possibly compare to the lofty glories (Construction of seven quilts is a “glory?”) of such a family? The answer is, they probably won’t (Wow, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., how many of your patients are now institutionalized?). Instead of focusing on what hasn’t worked, the holiday season is a good time to reflect on how the twists and turns your lives have taken in the previous 12 months (Barry attended a big high school reunion this summer and is still a legend.) have contributed to your growth as individuals (The iPhone and MacBook have changed Jennifer’s life.) and as a family. Stop, pause, and think about what the high points (Chad and Teri called us in February to tell us about their five-day long engagement.) and the low points (Jennifer gave the world’s most incoherent drunken toast at their reception six months later.) were, and don’t even begin to start writing until you’ve sorted out, in your own mind, where you are now compared to where you were a year ago. You can’t change what happened to you but you can change the way you think about it. Once you’ve done that stock-taking, you can compose the brief narrative that emphasizes the qualities of personal growth, coping with challenges (Like little boys peeing outside all summer long?), and the high points about which you feel the most proud (I became an aunt twice this year! Rian was part of a package deal and Ben arrived with a bang on July 3!). Throw in some photos and you are good to go.
You can be encouraged even more by thinking about who your audience is (Well, no offense to anyone on my Christmas card list, but it’s not like my audience is the Pope or the Queen of England.). Presumably they include friends and family members far and wide who have known you for your whole life. They’ve been with you through the highs and lows before, and they will undoubtedly stick with you for many years into the future (one can only hope). It’s unlikely that the people you really care about in this support network are ready to feel anything other than concern and empathy for your situation, whatever it is. You might even find that the people you expect to have the harshest criticism of you are the ones who offer the kindest words of support and wisdom.
So now you are ready to stop staring at blinking cursor and get going. Here’s another suggestion. Start writing and see what comes out. Don’t edit or censor yourself (That’s NOT a good idea. I’m the child of Brian “I burned my goddamn Cream of Wheat” Windholz.), just get it out there on the screen. In fact, you may find that after doing so, you actually feel better. A number of years ago, University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker found that writing about traumatic events greatly helped relieve stress and improve physical health (So my Facebook posts are keeping me healthy!). The idea that you can work through the difficult events of the past year by writing about them may not only make your holiday letter refreshingly honest (or just sad), it may also give you inner strength to help you confront next year’s challenges. You may not want to send the letter quite in its unrevised form, but at least you will have taken some important steps to get it in final shape.
Wow, that was a completely depressing article. I think I’ll just skip writing a holiday letter altogether this year. Best wishes for a wonderful 2010!
Jennifer, Barry, David (9), Cameron (7), Justin (4), and Alex (2) Weiner
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2009