When I was younger I eagerly awaited Christmas card season every year. It wasn't for those dreary religious scenes, nondenominational holly, fluffed-up family portraits or hokey animals in a snowy woodland. I wanted the soft chewy center: The Christmas Letter.
Every year my mother and I would remove the mimeographed (yes, I'm that old!) papers from inside the cards and set aside time to hoot over them. Over the years since then, Christmas letters have become fodder for many parodies, but, as Ashford & Simpson would tell you, ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.
There's a special joy in analyzing twisted truths and translating their hidden reality. For a real holiday treat, cook up some Swiss Miss and settle in while you develop the psychological profiles that explain the underlying insecurity, narcissism and lack of humility behind the blatant bragging and truth-stretching.
"Our beloved son is exploring his professional options, and lately has been considering the legal field." Translation: He's trying to get his felony conviction stricken from the public records so he doesn't have to keep putting it on his fast food job applications.
"Currently I'm involved in a new nonprofit organization to try and make meaningful changes in the status quo in my area. It's an uphill battle but as those who know me can attest, nothing can stop me in my quest for justice." Translation: As the lone voice of opposition to a project everyone around me favors, I've become a neighborhood pariah and have taken to sleeping with a gun under my pillow.
Also amusing is poking fun at the letters with gimmicks, such as those written by the family dog. ("The big one I call Master was congratulating the little one I call Tail Puller the other day. Something about 'good grades,' whatever that means. They walk on two legs, so their voices are somewhere up around the ceiling and I can't always tell exactly what's going on.") Parodies of Martha Stewart and Santa Claus making out his list never fail to fail to amuse.
Then there are the ones that are unintentionally hilarious by nature of their somber tone: "We've calculated that 67.4% of our extended family suffers from 'Morgenstern Toe,' a painful condition where the fourth toe bends over to scratch the third. We're voluntarily participating in DNA testing to identify the gene that causes this and are hoping our dedication can help others who have similar 'crosses to bear.' So we can't say 'at least we have our health,' but we can say 'we're working on it.' "
Travel, marriages/births and family achievements are popular Christmas letter topics, offset by the perennial death, divorce and public humiliation. Where did you go this year and how exotic can you make Cleveland sound? Who got married and had a kid, not necessarily in that order? Who was named a Rhodes scholar but never comes to visit any more? Who died and from what? Who was cheated on, abandoned, or otherwise left by the side of the marital road? Who was indicted, prosecuted, deposed, exposed, run out of town on a rail or picked up in a men's room in Minneapolis--and how can you make it sound like a good thing?
The letters I loved the most were from my mother's high school and college friends I had never met and she hadn't seen in decades. Their entire relationship had devolved into that of Christmas Correspondents, a special category of former friends about whom you know nothing current except what you can glean from their Christmas Letters. When I read about obscure Little League games in which some kid I would never meet hit the winning home run, or the cum laude graduation of a stranger I could despise sans guilt, I felt a special bond with my mother. There was a reason she wasn't in touch with these people the other 11 months of the year, and she enjoyed my company enough to share with me the reasons why.