Dear Family & Friends,
Yes, you read that right. This is a “Dear Family & Friends” holiday letter. Before I get into the nits and grits that tells you all about the wonder that is me, I thought I should do a bit of research about how best to approach these broad swinging missives. Surely there are rules laid down for writing one all-encompassing letter to Everyone I Know.
I’m not quite sure what has possessed me to undertake this wholesale approach to communication and it remains a bit of a mystery of how I actually got here. One can only guess what’s behind this: six-months of social isolation, Kanye’s faltering presidential campaign, failure to find a flattering face mask, ash from 500-year old Redwoods falling on my car….. But times of crisis also compel us to consider our lives in ways we may not have previously thought about, and so it just seemed that the logical next-step was to get ahead of the onslaught of December’s holiday greeting cards and letters all of you have been sending my way over these past years. That I have not personally sent out holiday greetings since Clinton was in office is beside the point.
So many of you have shown extraordinary reliability year after year and I have appreciated the series of annual updates, photos and joyful tidings you’ve sent my undeserving way. Enter, 2020 and all that implies. On the brink of this calamity I wish to mend my errant ways and can think of no better vehicle to begin this journey of forgiveness than submitting a holiday letter of redemption. You’re not going to believe this but it is possible to Google “how to write holiday family and friends greetings.” and up pops “Seven Tips for Sparkling Christmas Letters,” by one Cynthia Ewer featuring a photo of a beautiful white couple (her predictably blonde, him chisel-jawed) wearing jaunty Santa hats and smiles revealing what appears to be very expensive orthodontic work and most probably a recent in-office one-hour teeth bleaching session.
Up first I learn from Ms. Ewer that the number one tip for a glitter-filled Christmas letter is to
Start off with a positive note …
…and not a familiar and tiresome lament about the passage of time.” Instead of “I can’t believe how quickly this year has gone…” I am advised to greet you with “We’ve had a happy and busy year here in the Adams’ household.” I don’t know about you but in my opinion the decision to use The Adams’ family as a universal indicator of this year’s happiness and industry quotient is prescient, if not a bit understated. Indeed. I think we would all agree that it has been a banner year for Morticia and Uncle Fester. I will leave it to your own good natures to now silently reflect on some morsel of positivity that you might share with me because I’ll be damned if I can come up with one. And so, as the tour guide in Rome advised us after a silent meditation overlooking the ancient carnage and ruins of the Colosseum, avanti andiamo.
Shorter is sweeter
Next up, Ms. Ewer warns the holiday letter writing novitiate that “Even the most doting aunties can be daunted by a multi-page, single-spaced Christmas letter that drones on (and on and on) about the minutia of family doings. Keep Christmas letters short and sweet!” As an editorial note, one can only question the familiarity Ms. Ewer herself has with Strunk & White’s Elements of Style in their admonition to “avoid cliches like the plague.” It may not be her fault. Cynthia assembled this manifesto back in 2019, a time of innocence when few of us foresaw the arrival of an actual plague. Forthwith I shall endeavor to be mindful of the sparkle that short and sweet will contribute.
Do this to clean ear wax
WTF? This incoherent and unbidden cautionary tip came immediately after I was instructed to write in my own voice and caused me all manner of confusion. Whatever could my voice writing and ear wax removal have to do with the business at hand? True, I have been having a harder time understanding people when they talk but I had written it off as a function of secret meetings among those around me who got together and decided to begin mumbling when addressing me, thereby forcing me to ask them to repeat themselves or pretending that I understood what they just said and I then nod in silent agreement, hoping that subtle head-shaking will serve as agreeable acquiescence. Couple this with the wearing of face masks and you have the makings of a really difficult time for those of us trying to find our voices amid the ear wax purge. During a future free-play hour, I am determined to further investigate how these two dissimilar conditions converge to further the cause of adding sparkle to this missive, but for now, let’s not dawdle and avanti andiamo.
Keep your audience in mind
I’ll give Cynthia Ewer credit, she has an admirable allegiance to Big Truthiness: “Like pantyhose,” writes Ms. Ewer, “holiday letters aren’t one-size-fits-all.” I am further advised that informing my audience that ‘”Wallace is a happy Rebel this year” can mystify those who don’t remember him well.’ Point taken. I am leaving Wallace out of this. Besides, Wallace is most likely a little shit who barely made it through high school and is now ensconced in his parent’s basement where he spends his day watching porn and playing video games when he’s not online posting to the QAnon Reddit board decrying the space aliens who are abusing children and taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. Go outside, Wallace. Wear a mask. Get some sun. Girls still don’t like you.
Resist the urge to embellish
A fatal but understandable flaw is to fall victim to the holiday-time stereotype of the bragging Christmas letter. I am assured that my “true colors and real personality are a lot more interesting than a puffed-up presentation of the year’s events.” Let us now pause to consider that inflating 2020 would only serve to underscore the insanity that it has become. As it stands now, I am dragging around 19 new pounds of the Covid-19 I’ve put on since February; the last thing I hugged were my bed pillows when I changed their cases, and I’m looking forward to laundry day again next week in a disturbing sort of way that I won’t go into; I’ve taken to visiting the “Imported Foods” section of Safeway just to get a travel thrill; I could have learned to speak fluent Italian by now if I had spent the same time listening to Rosetta Stone tapes as I have watching Britbox mysteries; and I’m not sure I will ever again manage to dress myself in clothes that require buttons and zippers, having become a real fan of the elastic drawstring and the 10% spandex blend. But that’s enough bragging. I don’t want to flaunt my Covid accomplishments. It’s unseemly.
Be selective about photos
You’re not going to believe this, but Cynthia actually stooped to photo-shaming a friend. It is one thing when a faceless, nameless, anonymous writer takes us on a journey of self-improvement and quite another only to discover that this heretofore Beatrice tour guide of the Inferno has indulged herself in the flawed behavior of us mortals. Seems that someone’s Christmas letter of a previous year featured 50-tile size photos of their trip to Disney World, causing Ms. Ewer not only eye strain but resulting in using this hapless friend’s well-intentioned graphic novel as a what-not-to-do warning of the highest magnitude. For shame on the shamer, Ms. Ewer. Readers here will be relieved to know that not only have I not been to Disney World, the only photos I’ve taken since late February have been random pictures of my Jim Lahey-inspired no-knead breads and a series of frightening shots on September 9 when we spent the day under a haunting yet beautiful orange blanket of smog from the northern California and Oregon fires. We all agreed it was the color of Doomsday, and while waiting for the apocalyptic horses and chariots to arrive, my like-minded friends and I held forth with a surfeit of gas-grilled pizzas and massive hunks of chocolate cake and butter cream frosting, flourishes of fresh red raspberry notwithstanding. So yeah. There you have it. A description of my selective photos without weighing you down with the actual images.
Finally, Make it personal
We have come, sadly and blessedly, to the final lesson in achieving full sparkle. Here Cindy (we’ve become such good friends that she allows me to address her informally) offers a gentle reminder that a “sparkling informative holiday letter is underdressed if it doesn’t contain a personal touch.” Achieving a mutually satisfying and agreeable touch can include a handwritten note for a “warm finish” or, if I were a computer geek, she suggests that I could pull off a word processing software trick that would fool you into thinking I had actually written something by hand! The lesson here is to extend to each of you my warm and personal regards. I don’t want to belabor the point, but if you are receiving this letter, that’s about as much warmth and personal regard as I can possibly muster up. I hesitate to point out the obvious, but it’s October for Chrissakes. Halloween candy is still full price, you can find Thanksgiving themed napkins in any store that allows you to walk into it, and, speaking of walking into stores, it’s even too soon to have to endure listening to the Holly-Jolly-Christmas loop that makes you want to hang out at playgrounds with a Santa is a Hoax sign and watch small children weep. To that point, consider this as warm and personal as it’s gonna get.
I wish I were capable of writing an upbeat, targeted, wax-free Dear Family & Friends holiday letter this year, but I’m sorry; I just can’t, even under authoritative tutelage. And so, My Dear Family & Friends, the best Cindy and I can do for what remains of 2020 and throughout 2021 is to wish you all as good a time as you can make it. I may not be at my best, but I’m still here. I’m glad you are too! On a serious and final note, please send me your news, photos, complaints, rants, recipes, or whatever is going on in your one “wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver, The Summer Day).
[Insert warm and personal-looking handwritten software note here if I can figure it out.]
F_a_i_n_t_ _p_r_a_i_s_e_s_ _b_e_ _t_o_ _2_0_2_0_ _
A_ _y_e_a_r_ _w_e_’_l_l_ _c_a_l_l_ _i_n_t_r_a_n_s_i_g_e_n_t_e_ _
T_h_e_ _y_e_a_r_ _w_e_ _l_e_a_r_n_e_d_ _t_o_ _l_o_v_e_ _t_h_e_ _Z_o_o_m_ _
T_h_e_ _y_e_a_r_ _t_h_a_t_’_s_ _l_e_a_v_i_n_g_ _n_o_n_e_ _t_o_o_ _s_o_o_n_._ _
G_o_ _o_n_!_ _G_e_t_ _o_u_t_!_ _Y_o_u_ _f_i_e_n_d_i_s_h_ _f_o_e_ _
T_h_e_y_’_l_l_ _b_e_ _n_o_ _t_e_a_r_s_,_ _s_o_ _o_f_f_ _y_o_u_ _g_o_._ _
W_e_’_r_e_ _l_e_f_t_ _w_i_t_h_ _t_r_a_u_m_a_s_,_ _f_e_a_r_s_ _a_n_d_ _i_s_s_u_e_s_,_ _
E_x_c_e_s_s_ _b_e_a_n_s_ _a_n_d_ _t_o_i_l_e_t_ _t_i_s_s_u_e_._ _
H_u_s_b_a_n_d_s_,_ _w_i_v_e_s_ _a_l_l_ _w_a_n_t_ _r_e_p_l_a_c_e_m_e_n_t_s_ _
A_d_u_l_t_ _c_h_i_l_d_r_e_n_ _i_n_ _o_u_r_ _b_a_s_e_m_e_n_t_s_._ _
A_n_d_ _r_o_u_n_d_i_n_g_ _o_u_t_ _o_u_r_ _l_i_s_t_ _o_f_ _g_r_i_p_e_s_:_
_T_h_e_ _w_h_o_l_e_ _w_o_r_l_d_ _s_m_e_l_l_s_ _l_i_k_e_ _C_l_o_r_o_x_ _w_i_p_e_s_._ _
S_o_ _p_a_r_d_o_n_ _m_e_ _i_f_ _I_ _s_e_e_m_ _g_r_o_u_c_h_y_—
_I_ _b_l_a_m_e_ _i_t_ _a_l_l_ _o_n_ _D_r_._ _F_a_u_c_i_._ _
2_0_2_0_’_s_ _n_e_a_r_l_y_ _d_o_n_e_,_ _
L_e_t_’s_ _h_o_p_e_ _f_o_r_ _a_ _b_e_t_t_e_r_ _’2_1_._ _
—O_c_t_o_b_e_r_,_ _2_0_2_0_ _
Eileen Shields is a retired Public Health Communications Director and resident of the Sunnyside neighborhood in San Francisco. She is currently at work on alphabetizing her spices.