Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Christmas Letter Rant

So the other day a friend on the phone was telling me that they didn't have time to do their normal Christmas cards this year, so they were just going to send a mass Christmas letter.

Between you and me, as soon as I heard "Christmas letter", two things happened. First, my skin crawled. Second, I tuned out.  It was all Charlie Brown's teacher after that.

Christmas letters -- my friends, I just don't get them. Or the single-space-page-of-text-that-makes-my-eyes-bleed variety, anyway.  Who wants to read all that? It's not that we don't care, but come on, a typed page or more with nothing but text? Are you for real?

Ironically, these letters take a lot of work.  So the writers put a lot of effort in, and at best most people skim it.

Three things I've been taught that are helpful in crafting a Christmas letter (if you want people to read it).  

1.  Consider the page. 

Day one of film school is this lesson: if you put too much description on a page, your readers are going to give up on you and never see what an amazing story you have to tell.  Long paragraphs intimidate busy people. So don't do that.

Tell me you haven't gotten Christmas letters like this. (I don't care if it is on pink stationery and with a garland trim, it's still a nightmare.)

Think visually. Have short parargraphs. Offer a photo or two that tell a story or evoke a feeling just by looking at them.

So, for example, how about this stunning shot from my friend Tanya's trip to France? 

You want to make it big so you can really appreciate it, but that could be great.

Or if you like comedy...

Had I known the fun I'd have with my nephews and nieces getting a photo done, I would definitely have sent this out. Aren't they adorable? (My inspiration.)

Other presentation ideas: cut your paper in an interesting shape -- don't use the full page,  cut it to 2/3rds, or half.  Trim the edges in some weird way.  Stamp it with reindeer prints. Whatever.   

Consider the page.  

All of this leads to the second thing, which is probably the most important. 

2. Consider your audience. 
(Which means: BE ENTERTAINING.)

This is why most letters fail, in my opinion.  The writers have a lot to share, but they don't think write with an audience in mind. You would never sit down with a friend and speak to them in whole pages of text -- at least, not if it wasn't important.  So why would it seem okay to do that on the page?  

You shouldn't make the Christmas baby angry.  You wouldn't like her when she's angry. 

Don't be like that. Think about it.  Who are you writing for? And what are you trying to offer them?

And if your answer could be summarized as, I'm trying to offer them information about my last year, DUDE. Think hard about whether it's worth doing.  Because that's a goal that has very little to do with your readers.  

And it usually results in letters that are not only long, but filled with long lists of of people and places. This year we went to X, Y, Z.  We saw this friend, and that friend, and that friend. Horrible, horrible letters.   

It's Christmas. Your letter should be a gift of some kind -- it should make me laugh or make me think, make me feel.   

Two great examples: 1) When I was a Jesuit novice, one of the guys in the class behind me took a photo from some event in his year, I think some kids he worked with that he really loved -- and he mass produced it, and then on the back he wrote a little story about those kids.  It was probably 7 sentences long. 

We love stories.  We don't have to be told what they mean, we don't need it to connect exactly to Christmas -- we're all just hungry for meaning, you know? So a teeny weeny story that offers a little substance -- that is a HUGE gift.  Those are the kinds of Christmas letters I look forward to.  

2) Some of my friends let their kids offer their own comments. Let me tell you, especially when the kids are young, that is 110% gold every time.  The things kids say -- they're wonderful and fresh and even when they're saying, this Christmas I give thanks for Santa, somehow it's a new perspective that makes me happy.

An audiovisual example:

Who cares that it's a commercial? The kids start in and it's adorable. Here's another.

Be funny. Be engaging.  Be creative.

This is the busiest (and for many people the worst) time of year.  So consider them.

Be entertaining. 

(And part of being entertaining: Be specific.  If the substance of your comment is, I went to Rio and I liked it, what am I supposed to do with that? There's nothing there for me, really. I'm happy for you, but you know what would be cooler? Some little story about Rio that I can think about or laugh over.  Something you observed.  Be specific.)

3.  Be brief.  

10 words is better than 20.  I don't care who you are or how you write, it just is. (And yes, I will now invoke the parents' golden rule: Do as I say, not as I do.)

In a spiritual season like Advent, things that we invest so much time in, like a Christmas letter, are important. A Christmas letter is an opportunity to travel back through and relish again the things that were important in your year.   However you imagine God (or even if you don't), you had some gifts this year.  You had some surprises.  You had some important moments.  Honor them by taking the time to savor them.  

And honor your readers by thinking of yourself as trying to give them a little gift.  If you're really serious about the letter, that's what you're doing anyway. So be intentional about it. 


Mike Bayard, S.J. said...

Amen! (No more words needed) :)

Will said...

went to a photo montage video with short captions last more paper and a lot less work for friends and family!

jm said...

So timely, Jim. Each year we receive such a letter from a certain someone and it is -- beyond words. So horrendously generic, so offensively cheerful. This year's letter arrived on Wednesday. FOUR of the six paragraphs use the exclamation point as their only punctuation mark. It got the dramatic out-loud reading it deserved over dinner. Are we going to hell?

Michelle said...

Hey, there is a doctoral thesis for some sociologist or anthropologist in those letters, don't knock them!

kmbrco said...

(gulp) So, I guess there will be objections to my blog-post of holiday greetings this year.

I'm a little offended, actually.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Thanks for the comments. A couple friends were passing it around on Facebook; it was interesting to see people's reactions there, too.