I have been writing an annual Christmas letter about my life for six years now. It’s a small publication— over the course of its admittedly brief existence it has ranged from a half of a page of text to a full page front and back. I haven’t done it the same way twice, but it usually includes some pictures from the year and my favorite books and movies and a selection of my favorite memories. It is meant for my folks’ folks, as they say: the awkwardly distant relatives I have never talked to on the phone before, my parents’ friends who watched me grow up, the teachers and professors I have kept in touch with. These people get it as a mailed letter every year. My other friends, well, I sometimes send it to them via email. Sending it as a letter seems a bit much, and honestly, gets quite expensive.
Anyhow, this year, I sent it out to my friends as well— the long distance ones—, buried in a Merry Christmas, let’s catch up sometime sort of email. I don’t know if they say it to be nice, but several people sent me back joyous I love getting this email every year sorts of responses, and this gave me a bit of an ego boost. I flatter myself that it’s the list of book and movie recommendations that really makes my Christmas letter an easy sell.
One of my friends, however, responded several days later with a wonderfully frank text:
“What is this self important bullshit?”
At this I laughed out loud. You must understand how much I adore having this friend in my life… it is a rare person indeed who will call you on your self-important bullshit without being asked to, and he is one.
My friend is right. An annual Christmas letter like mine is absurd, egotistical, arrogant, self-important, and entirely unnecessary. Every year I cringe at the thought of writing another one and having to bear the shame of actually sending it out. If silence is humility and sharing all the good things in my life is pride, then I have indeed sinned— six times over. (Though I might argue that posting statuses on Facebook is only a more passive aggressive way of doing the same.). Yet, every year I decide to do it again, and I would like to make a case for my actions.
To be honest, the annual Christmas letter is mostly for me. The first year I wrote a letter, the man working at the copy shop looked up from my paper— which he had read through as it was being spit from the machine— and said, “You should save these. This is great. One day you’ll want to look back and read them.” I nodded with a smile, taking my precious box of beautiful letters home. He liked them!
He hasn’t been wrong. I never manage to find time during the summers to put together those scrapbooks of college that I keep meaning to work on. But the Christmas letter is always there. It has the pictures, and it tells the stories. Each year I look back and read the old letters, and I am amazed by how I’ve grown and changed, how much I’ve forgotten of what has happened to me over the years and who has mattered to me.
I suppose it’s like teaching. In class, we take time at the end of each lesson to ‘summarize’ our learning for the day. Research shows that if you don’t take time to reflect and summarize, students both learn less and remember less. I guess it’s the same in life. It is in timely reflection that we grow.
Admittedly, my letter tells the story of my life in an odd way. My closer companions know a lot more of the messiness. How many people I asked about the weird light blinking on my car, who it was who helped me fill my tires, how I tried and failed to start biking to work. How much weight I lost— and gained back. Whom I loved and who didn’t love me back, who I waited to text me for days. When I felt broken down by my job and when God seemed to have only silence and a turned back for me.
But for some reason, I don’t have trouble remembering those messy spots. I do know how to fill my tires now, and I know how to live my life fully without waiting for a text from a boy, and I’ve definitely grown in prayer and faith. But it was the small joys and celebrations that I needed help reliving. Perhaps some half century from now, when I have close to a novella’s worth of Christmas letters, I will have a strange, beautiful little narrative of the small victories in life, the books and movies and music that shaped it, and the things I learned and people I loved along the way. I do not think that is so bad a thing.
My second point is that we live in a society that is not only sexist and racist (and all sorts of other oppressive things), but couple-ist. We privilege the married and brush off the single. The other people I know who send out Christmas letters and cards are all couples or families. Every one of them. And this is a shame. Too many young people are simply waiting for their lives to begin, as if the things we are accomplishing and adventuring toward now don’t count, because we aren’t married yet. Because we have no babies. Because we are still paying rent. This is not to knock parenting or childbearing or childrearing (or home buying): all of these are immensely difficult, noteworthy things, and when they happen in your life, trust that I want to be there, celebrating with you and cheering you on. I work with teenagers for a living— I do not take parenting lightly.
But all my single ladies (and gents) should feel our lives are no less full at the holidays. We are not half people. We are not missing anything. We have canvases of life we’re making into masterpieces too.
Honestly, far too many people are complicit in this couple-ist nonsense. How many churches have boards of elders made out of married couples? How many times have you or your female friends been asked by relatives if there is a special someone in their lives yet? How many people do you know who married more because of the pressure to fit in and fear of not being alone than the desire to be with a specific person? In fact, if you think about it, single people are essentially second-class citizens. We pay higher taxes. We are treated with less respect by society (at least women are). And we wait around to tell our stories until our big days, as if marriages are the only things worthy of celebrating.
I simply refuse to participate in this waiting. I have a life full of stories that I am ready to tell now, and I will tell them.
All this letter writing was first prompted by my parents. My elder brother was sending out these incredibly long emails about his college life once a quarter to people he and my parents cared about, and my parents said, Juliet, make sure you do the same. I thought about this, and I thought that it was ridiculous. (A) Four times a year is way too often to write to people you don’t know that well. (B) One day I’ll stop doing this and it will be awkward. (C) Who really wants to read this?
So I decided to do it my own way. I started a tradition that I hope I can keep up the rest of my life. And yes, I feel absurd writing a Christmas letter about myself the length of most families’ letters, when grown parents are bragging on their (grown and un-grown) kids. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of us did this? Wouldn’t it be great if we were all exchanging books and movies and music and recipes and lessons learned and people loved and memories lived? Christmas letters shouldn’t be resumes of a perfect American family, they should be accounts of real lives, filled with stories of adventure and growth and accomplishment and personality. I would love to read about my distant friends with photos and fun details, to see their big moments, the best things they learned, the people they loved. I want to keep up with them, so that I know if I show up on their doorstep halfway across the country one day, we still have plenty to talk about, we have real questions to ask, real worries to share.
And this is the crux of the matter: we live in a world where friendships and families span great distances and even generations. My closest friends are between 2 and 26 hours away, by car and plane. My relatives and parents’ friends span the country. And the families and people I have befriended throughout my life literally span the globe.
I have no desire to give up my connections with any of these people. They are dear to me— whether it is because they have welcomed me into their home once, or we had a great car ride conversation, or because they raised a child who become one of my dearest friends, or because we sat at the same dining table or sang in the same choir in college for years. Maybe they babysat me as a child or taught me a seminar in college. Regardless, I consider them friends.
I know it is uncommon in this day and age to consider people outside of your generation friends, but I think now more than ever, we need those friends most. And perhaps that is why I believe in Christmas letters: they are not for the young. They are for the older friends. I went to the movies yesterday with an 84-year old lady (an annual recipient of my letter). For twelve years of my childhood, she taught me piano. This time I drove her to the movies as she told me of growing up in Tampa and helped her down the steps as we discussed Stephen Hawking’s wife. We have a date later this week to listen to some Schubert recordings. There are amazing things to be learned by watching and listening to other people’s lives, especially lives outside of our generation. We need to hold onto these people, and if my absurd little Christmas letter helps, I do not mind making myself a fool for it.
I am a teacher, and there is nothing I would love more than to see the adventures and joys and accomplishments of my students’ future lives come back to me on a regular basis. Perhaps I am too optimistic about the generosity in people’s spirits, but I imagine the people who have invested in me would wish the same.
Friendships change with time and distance— it is true. But in the end, it’s been wonderful. Each year, I send out a little, ridiculous account of my current life. I’m like a child again, asking people to celebrate with me. It’s embarrassing, and it’s a bit self-important, and it’s definitely full of some bullshit. But in return, people start writing me back. They tell me of the baby coming, of med-school next year, of their trip to Brazil, of their holiday vacation. I get calls and texts and Facebook messages. Coffee dates. Next year’s trips and vacations. Invitations to people’s homes. And my life feels so wonderfully full.
We remember each others’ existences, and we celebrate.