Letter Perfect

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The old song says “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but in our consumer culture, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas before Labor Day. So by the time the bleak midwinter rolls around, one might’ve had just about all the tidings of comfort and joy they can stand.

The pop psychology holds that Christmas is a “stressful” time. (Perhaps you need a hug?) And it’s not merely Mall Mom Goes Commando Over Last Tickle Me Elmo Doll.  Or the cherished seasonal custom of dueling religious symbols—the crèche versus the menorah—like festive fisticuffs. Or the dreadful Christmas movies. (If there’s a hell, its denizens are watching “Home Alone 4” on a loop.) The season is inescapable.

I once went to have an MRI at Christmastime. When the nurses put the headphones on me, there was some sort of malfunction. I listened to Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” for 40 minutes. This does not bring out the good will in men.

These days, my family is trying to reduce the stress of the season. We still put up a Christmas tree, but I am under court order never to buy anything for my wife or daughter.  (I’ve made some mistakes.) So now, my crowning achievement is not sending Christmas cards.

My wife’s handwriting is illegible. Most of the cards she would send (always late) would be returned as undeliverable. (Little problem with the address book, too.) So now we send cards on a triage basis. Guilt cards. If someone sends us a card, we send one back. No question about it, we’re getting fewer Christmas cards. And we’re sending fewer, too.

The Internet and the price of stamps sounded the death knell for season’s greetings. A first-class stamp is now 46 cents. A Christmas card costs maybe $2. Well, as they say, do the math. You can get quite a nice bottle of Glenmorangie for the price of a couple of dozen cards and have yourself a merry little Christmas, too.

Last year it was nigh impossible to even buy a Christmas stamp. At the little post office I go to the clerks just shrugged. The old people I heard asking for Christmas stamps seemed genuinely crestfallen. Eventually, the Christmas stamps appeared—in April! (Isn’t that in “Ernest Saves Christmas”?)

During the yuletide gay, most of the cards I now get are form letters from wise men—stockbrokers, lawyers and insurance agents. They speak to the real meaning of the holiday understood by Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge. Money. These men do not, as the bumper sticker puts it, “Keep the Christ in Christmas.” They NEVER use the word Christmas on anything. Season’s Greetings!  Happy Holidays!

But we do still get the occasional unctuous Christmas letter, which surely will survive the demise of the Christmas card.  Hell, it may survive Christianity. That’s simply because the Christmas letter is not about Christmas but about the sender of the letter. It’s a chance to boast, brag and bray. Many are illustrated now, too.

People you see every day rarely send Christmas letters—largely because such missives are tissues of half-truths (all the children are geniuses), wild embellishments, (exotic foreign travel), outright lies (“we bought Nantucket”), falsehoods (son early decision at Yale but going to Sweet Pea State, it’s a family tradition) and fabrications (inventive explanations as to why someone lost or changed jobs). 

I can’t wait for these letters to arrive every year. I sit before a roaring fire and read every word, every lie and every fabrication and falsehood. They speak to the real meaning of the season today.

As a person with no more religion than my old cat, I would point out to the theology scholars following along at home that this holiday is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ not Matty Mattel—or your old college roommate’s 14th grandchild (a violin prodigy, you know). But I still love these letters. To me, they’re a lot like the story of Christmas itself.

God bless us everyone.

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