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Beware the incredible expanding holiday letter

' . . . So after Susie's Carnegie performance, we left for Tahiti. . . . '

December 21, 2007|Kirsten Scharnberg | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Americans are notorious for holiday excess: too-bright yard lights, too many gifts, too much eggnog.

No different, it seems, is the holiday letter, that annual epistle sent far and wide to family, friends and even just random acquaintances: too long, too boastful, too much information.

Inside those telltale red-and-green envelopes are dispatches that etiquette experts say commit the worst of seasonal sins: focusing almost entirely on the sender and devoting scant time to the very reason such cards were first conceived more than 150 years ago, to impart goodwill.

"There is a real need to avoid that 'enough-about-me-let's-talk-about-me' syndrome," said Angela Ensminger, the letter-writing diva of Hallmark Cards Inc. and co-author of the book "On a Personal Note: A Guide to Writing Notes With Style."

Michael Lent still shudders over a letter that detailed Grandma's persistent bladder problems. Lent is author of the new humor book "Christmas Letters From Hell: All the News We Hate From the People We Love."

Others haunted by the ghost of Christmas letters past have launched dozens of websites this year to post the most egregious examples of self-absorption. An Internet favorite apes the trend: "Junior has retranslated the Rosetta Stone, correcting several errors previously made by linguists, which has changed the meaning and importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and shed new light and understanding on the Bible. . . . He earned 72 Merit Badges in the Boy Scouts of America in one month and can field-strip a F-116 fighter jet blindfolded and restore it to flight status using only a Swiss Army knife."

Even the mainstay letter insert -- the traditional holiday family photo -- has seen significant changes in recent years. Shutterfly, an online seller of holiday photo cards, last year introduced collage cards that allow customers to include not one but nine family photos. Such cards now account for more than 50% of the company's holiday sales.

"Sometimes people just can't choose one photo that reflects everything they've done that year," said Kathryn Olson, chief marketing officer for Shutterfly.

But that's the point, say some critics of the modern American holiday letter: People don't want to know everything you've done throughout the year -- vacations and doctor visits and every eye-glazing second of Little League baseball or girls' soccer finals.

"You should be brief and humble and sensitive to the fact that a good many people may have had crummy years," Ensminger said. "They don't need page after page of how great yours was."

Ensminger said she got a holiday letter this year that was so long and detailed that the thought of even reading it was daunting. "I was like, 'Wow,' " she said. "Some of those letters are really something."

In his "Letters From Hell" book, Lent quotes a Christmas dispatch from a reality-TV producer who brags about one of his new ideas for a series: "Ultimate fighting among holy men of various religions. Sort of a 'Mother Teresa: Fists of Blood.' "

Sure, there are those in everyone's life who do want every little detail: moms and grandmas, great-aunts and best friends. But writing experts say to customize longer cards for those recipients while keeping everyone else's letters short and sweet. The golden rule? Don't even think about more than one page, Ensminger said. She recommends that holiday letters not exceed 10 sentences.

That doesn't mean creativity has to be left on the cutting-room floor.

Olson, of Shutterfly, cited one example: new parents who sent a photo of their red-faced, screaming baby with a note that said, "Wishing you a Silent Night this Christmas." It wasn't the perfect family portrait in front of the fireplace or tree (still the most popular holiday photo pose, according to Shutterfly statistics); instead it was a down-to-earth Peace on Earth.

"Ideas like that take some of the pressure off," Olson said. "You don't have to have the perfect family picture where everyone is smiling and everyone looks equally good."

Jamie and Jay Watson of San Carlos, Calif., created a holiday photo card last year that friends and family kept on refrigerators long after the holidays. The couple had been regaling people for months with accounts of a persistent squirrel that seemed to think of the Watsons' new home as its own. So one day they lured the squirrel -- nicknamed Willie -- into their living room with peanuts and took a photograph of him near a Santa hat on their sofa.

"People went crazy over that card," said Jamie Watson, 39. She draws the line at clever cards, she said, and refuses to include the annual holiday letter because she and her husband usually just make fun of them.

Manners maven Emily Post opined about holiday letters as early as 1922, in an etiquette book about the least enjoyable letters to receive.

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