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The Annual Christmas Letter

Some families spend hours baking cookies every Christmas, then package them up to give to all their friends and relatives. In my family, we spent hours sending out Christmas cards with the annual holiday letter — 400 of them.

My dad was in the military. As my parents moved from post to post every few years, they made friends in each location with other service people who lived the same transient lifestyle. Years before the Internet, this annual letter was the way they maintained contact with the only consistent support network they had.

As a child, my job was to apply our return address and the postage stamp to the envelopes. I would fan out a full box of envelopes so that they overlapped, exposing only the top corner. I’d quickly stamp each one with an address. After they dried, I’d gather them up like a deck of cards and fan them out the other way to apply the stamps. Even with my high-efficiency method, this project took days. But I didn’t mind. I worked near the decorated tree, and there was Christmas music playing on the stereo. It felt like an important adult part of the holidays that I could contribute to even as a kid. After taking the carload of boxes down to the post office, my mom and I would make a batch of holiday cookies and wait for the returning cards to arrive — all 400 of them.

As my parents aged, some of their longtime friends died, lost interest or just faded away — and the list declined to 250 cards. I felt obligated to take over. Their poor health was isolating them, and I thought that at least their few far-away relatives should be kept appraised of their situation. Then I sent the letter on to the rest of their friend list. My parents still enjoyed getting the cards that came to them in return.

Eventually the remnants of their holiday letter (a scant 100 addresses) became my own, and since then has become a significant part of my Christmas. It was as natural to continue the tradition as is for others to make the family’s secret eggnog recipe every year. Even now, a few of their long-term friends and distant relatives have stayed in touch with me. My letters developed into something more humorous, personal and reflective than most annual family reports that simply list facts about the summer vacation, the daughter’s honor roll grade or the son’s winning chess team. My reflections include how I felt about evacuating my home when Hurricane Irene headed toward Hoboken. And news about my cat: “Nutmeg is fine and still enjoying his status as a local celebrity as he sits outside on my step and greets the neighbors. I’ve become known as nothing more than Nutmeg’s mom.” I also include thoughts on books I’ve enjoyed. After reading Anna and the King of Siam (source material for The King and I), I reported, “Besides running a school, and translating French documents for the King, she was defending local women in court, or helping them break out of prison — all while wearing a hoop skirt! It made me wonder, am I taking enough risks?”

I also reflect on my job as a singing teacher. One year I wrote, “The clever mother of a 14-year-old student just emailed me saying, ‘He doesn’t talk to us much at home anymore — but we know he talks to you. Do you have any ideas for Christmas gifts for him?’ ” “In June, a college-age student emailed, ‘If my teachers at school had been as supportive as you, I’d be an astronaut by now.’ ” Sometimes the rewards of this work go beyond the music.

Recently, I spoke to one of my dad’s cousins for the first time, and he said my entertaining letter was his favorite of all the annual greetings he received. His granddaughter was playing on the award-winning Rutgers women’s soccer team, and these Nebraska grandparents were flying to New Jersey on a regular basis to watch her play.  The first night we met, at a dinner table full of brand-new relatives, we exchanged old family stories — including some shocking ones I’d never heard. They changed my understanding of that side of the family, and I was so grateful to finally find out what really happened a century ago. I never would have had closure on that history, if it weren’t for the Christmas letters. In many ways, I’ve seen God work through the connections these letters maintain.

Stories about messages from far away — that’s part of God’s ancient story. For the shepherds, it was angels appearing over the fields in a “heavenly host.” The wise men from the East looked up at the stars and found the one they were meant to follow. Like the shepherds and wise men, I look to the night sky, but see only the fading light leading to the Winter Solstice. Even in the city, we can see the sun sinking closer to the horizon, setting earlier, lengthening the dark of night.

Striking a match, I light the four candles in my Swiss Angel Chimes ornament and look through my address list. I’m grateful for the long-term friends as well as the new ones just added. Thinking about each person, I consider which friendships I want to invest in more deeply during the coming year, which ones I haven’t heard from lately and want to reach out to, and ponder if there are any that I feel it’s right to let go of.  In the darkness, I meditate on my circle of family and friends. The delicate chimes ring as the tiny brass angels fly in an endless circle, moved by the rising heat of the candles.  The solstice passes and my personal life comes into focus each year as the light begins to return.

I was surprised last week when my Oklahoma cousin, a Facebook friend, snail-mailed me a hand-addressed envelope. She’d been cleaning out some storage boxes, and found one of my parents’ old Christmas letters — so she mailed it to me. It was from when I was at college, so I wasn’t at home helping send out this particular mailing. My mother wrote, “In May, Barbara sang two songs at the wedding of a friend. I hadn’t heard her sing since she has been taking lessons from an excellent teacher in New York, and she moved me to tears with the clear beauty of her voice and her poise.” After all these years, hearing my mother’s voice again in the holiday letter moved me to tears as well.

The days are getting shorter. It’s time to get started on this year’s letter.

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