The annual holiday letter as family journal



Keeping family memories: the annual Christmas letter can go into a scrapbook or file that offers a chronology of events, trips, life stages, and recollections as years go by. ©Thinkstock

Each winter since marrying my husband eight years ago, I have written a letter to family and friends to include with our holiday card. Although it started out as a way to keep our distant friends and family abreast of our moves and life milestones like new jobs and new babies, the annual letter evolved into a project I now undertake mainly for myself and for my own family of four. Every year, as Thanksgiving passes and the boxes of red and green decorations emerge, I take time to reflect on the changes and growth in our family and want to exclaim to anyone who will listen that my babies aren’t babies anymore! Life moves faster with each passing year.

I created a binder for these letters to help me keep track of them, and the binder emerges along with the boxes of decorations, having been hidden away amongst twinkle lights or hand-made ornaments for the previous ten months. Browsing back through past letters, I am in awe of how much change can come in twelve short months. I re-read the collection and give thanks for my life, for having survived the challenging days. The memories come flooding back, reading about the past.

Last winter, I clicked a photo of my unsuspecting 2-year-old daughter, still in her jammies, pinching candy sprinkles between tiny fingers to decorate a Christmas cookie. I recall reflecting on the baby she had been just one December before. How could it be that this child, now chatting with me about Santa and snowmen and singing along to “Jingle Bells”, was the same child who a mere 12 months prior, could only babble and smear oatmeal on her face?

These snapshots of our family life remind me life keeps on moving. We clutch for dear life to photos and to bits of our history recorded in print. To chubby handprints and messy drawings preserved on laminated paper. Children grow up quickly. And today’s burdens will not be the same as those next week, or next month or next year. The same goes for today’s joys.

Writing helps ground me during the busyness of the holiday season. It forces me to sit, to search for stillness and peace so I can contemplate what is important to remember. I must be thoughtful as I choose what to include in the few paragraphs afforded me by a single sheet of paper.

The annual letter is something I write for my future children-in-law and grandchildren, so they will be able to hear sweet and funny stories about their spouses and parents, stories that might otherwise be lost to history.

Although I could, I choose not to write about the messes we got into the previous year, like that aggravating fender bender between my brand-new van and a cement pole. Or the phone call I got from school the day my child had an especially difficult day. I don’t write about the dinners I burned while distracted by squabbling children, or the days when my husband and I could have done a better job communicating with one another.

Instead, I write about the triumphs we want to acknowledge, the life-changing news we want to share. I write about the addition of nephews and in-laws to our family, and of the loved ones we’ve lost and are mourning. I ask my letter’s recipients to send back news, and I open our home to receive visitors, even though we live far away from many of family and friends and know that many of them will never make the trip.

The annual letter is something I write for my future children-in-law and grandchildren, so they will be able to hear sweet and funny stories about their spouses and parents, stories that might otherwise be lost to history. I write it for my husband, so I can praise him in front of others, to show him that I appreciate his hard work and unique talents. And acknowledge his never-ending love for his family.

Although I am usually an optimist, I know life is unpredictable … sometimes in a not-so-great way. Life can take all sorts of twists and turns we aren’t expecting, and a sudden turn of events can usher in changes that aren’t welcomed, aren’t embraced. I see nothing in my future that ought to make me fearful, yet at times I pinch myself and ponder how long tidings of good news can prevail. I see my friends lose parents to protracted illness; I read in the news of lives lost to hunger, uncontrollable viruses and acts of war. I worry and wonder, how long will my letters continue to uplift?

I pray when those dark moments in life come, as they do for everybody at some point, I will be able to continue the practice of sitting and reflecting and finding the right words to share on a cold day in early December. It is my wish not just for myself, but also for everyone that we be able to find stillness and peace during the holiday season, even while the hustle and bustle continues around us.

Like yin and yang, good times and difficult times often go hand-in-hand. It is for the potential of joy during holiday gatherings that we choose each year to undergo the stress of shopping and cooking, wrapping gifts and preparing for festivities. At the end of every holiday season and winter, the grayness and cold will eventually make way for greenness, brightness and warmth. How we weather the seasons of life, how we tolerate the ups and downs, can reveal a lot about our resiliency. And life tests in all of us an ability to remain resilient, to be optimistic and to be able to see past the bad to the good in all people, and in the world around us.

The theme that unifies winter celebrations—like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Winter Solstice—is that even in the face of difficulty, loss, disaster, darkness and heartache, the enduring love of partners and family and friends is there. But to see it, we must be mindful. We must stop and look for it.

And sometimes, we must even write it down and tuck it away, so in the future, we can go back and read about it. And remember.

BRIANNE KIRKPATRICK is a freelance writer from Harrisonburg, Va.


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