Christmas Letter Cover-Up

christmas letter cover up card“We turn up … every day pretending
We’re not neurotic and obsessed and insatiable and full of doubt.
And we waste so much energy keeping up
This mutual pretense for each other because we think if people saw
The truth,
If people really knew appetites and self-loathing, then we’d get rejected.
But in fact, the opposite is true.”
~ from Manifesto by Jamie Catto

Ah, yes. It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is over and soon they will start arriving in my mailbox: holly-jolly holiday letters. Usually neatly tucked into a card with photos of my friends’ smiling, red-and-green-clad children, these chipper chronicles of accomplishment launch me into a state of unbecoming peevishness.

The reason for my ill temper in regards to these tales of unrelenting success and fulfillment is, of course, that they are happy hooey.

That sounds grouchy and grumpy and Grinchy, I grant you. I really am a proponent of positivity and an advocate of non-complaining, but every once in a while, I’ve just got to call a thing into question.

I expect that these narratives of all that’s  bright and beautiful in the writer’s life are meant to connect, to include, and draw them closer to the recipients. My issue with holiday letters is that they accomplish the exact opposite of what they purport to do.

Even when couched in terms of gratitude and wonder, by sharing the awe-inspiring vacations, jaw-dropping job promotions, stellar academic achievements, and Herculean athletic feats with their friends and relations, they actually create more separation than connection.

Instead of drawing people together, one of two things happens:

(1) The reader either knows full-well that these happy successes are only half (or less) of the story and that plenty of other messy, difficult, crazy things also happened leaving the reader wondering how the writer and family really are,


(2) The reader forgets that life is full of everything and they think that the writer’s life is way WAY better than theirs leaving the reader feeling defeated or ashamed of their own messy, difficult, crazy life.

Either way, more peace on earth, more goodwill…not.

This reality cover-up happens not just with holiday letters, of course, but in cocktail conversation, on Facebook and Instagram, and even in good, old-fashioned email. Everybody puts on a show of happy, easeful success even though everybody knows that that is simply not the way human life rolls.

So how can I stay both positive and real when everything is not sugar plums and figgy pudding?

What if we took a more balanced approach? What if when asked about my holiday, I told more of the truth:
• I had a lovely time with the people who I was with AND I was missing someone terribly.
• I loved visiting with my family AND my feelings were hurt.
• I enjoyed preparing the meal AND it felt rushed and stressful.

Some people will get squirmy and uncomfortable. We aren’t trained to handle the whole story. Taking off the mask and shining the light in the shadows bucks the cultural system. But some people will be relieved.  Some people will relax and say what’s true for them, too.  Either way, it’s the only way I can think of to really connect to each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves from what my poet friend calls the “lonely mass hysteria” of isolation behind the mask of Everything’s-Great.

I don’t have to tell all. I don’t have to over-share. But I can make a step toward sharing both the light and the dark. Share your successes, yes please do, but also share your struggles. Tell about the joy, but also share the sadness.

Join me bucking the system. Tell the truth. Or more of the truth. Stay positive, but be real.  If you write holiday letters, make it a real one and it will actually be a gift of comfort and joy.

In this of all seasons, pretending that the darkness isn’t there is just silly.

  1. Blue said:

    Thank you so much for this post! It is so true that reading a list of successes and happy times does not bring us closer.

    Years ago I worked in a garden and i remember one morning reporting to this garden and seeing that a beautiful rose had bloomed during the night. Underneath this rose was a bloody, dead possum. Hm –that pretty much sums life up. I’ve wanted to write the song, “The Possum and The Rose” for years now. This year there were several instances of this phenomenon in my life.

    Back in the spring, I had the honor of winning an award for the work I do for special needs people here in Cville. Just days before the ceremony, I fell down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night while housesitting at a friend’s house. I made the mistake of walking in the pitch dark house looking for the bathroom. Lying on the floor at 3:00am at the bottom of the steps, I pictured myself accepting the award on crutches. It turned out I was lucky and only had some bruises and I was fine.

    Then there was the time I was asked to play for at a party for someone I greatly admire (and who I felt totally intimidated by). He asked me to play for his 50th birthday party which took place in NYC. I was beside myself with excitement about this gig but I was also secretly hoping something would happen that would prevent me from going. So what happened? A week before the trip, I slipped on ice and went down hard. Lying there on the ground, my first thought was, “Maybe I can’t go to NYC now.” Ha ha. Again it turned out I was only bruised and I did go and played the gig and had my picture taken with said guy who scared me hanging on my fridge now. I did it!

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me because my the stories of my award and that scary gig would not be complete with the bruises and the “possum and the rose” thing!

  2. I definitely want to hear The Possum and The Rose! Thank you, Blue.

  3. wannabeageek said:

    so very true. Life really is complicated it is beautiful and a hot mess all at the same time. To talk about the one without acknowledging the other is silly and trying to pretend that the mesy parts don’t exist or trying to hide them from the light is a needless waste of psychic energy. Thank you for so eloquently speaking the truth.

    • “A hot mess.” I love that. Thank you so much for reading and being willing to be with all of it.

  4. Are the holly-jolly holiday letters (wonderful description) you receive the round-robin kind, printed out and sent exactly the same to goodness-knows-how-many other poor souls? Because this is the other thing that makes me fly into a fit of seasonal rage when I get them. (Well, extreme irrtation, anyway.) It’s always the same people who send them and I know, I just KNOW that right now they’re in production and are going to start showing up in the post. And is it too much to ask for a personal note actually addressed to me, and not just a publicity bulletin? Thanks for saying things that so many of us feel and haven’t found a way to say!

    • Ha ha! Yes, exactly. It really does call into question the intention behind the letters, doesn’t it? Now that we can see them for what they are, maybe we can relax and laugh and recycle them!

      • I just remembered a very funny send-up of this sort of thing by a writer I follow at Stray Thoughts – posted in 2012 – and I’ve managed to find it, here:
        You’re absolutely right, what we need to do is laugh. Thanks for that!

  5. Funny! I love it! Just shared it on our Focus Pocus Facebook page! ❤

  6. Brigette said:

    I’m a good friend to your niece, Morgan, and she text me telling me to read this. Boy, am I glad she did? We have had numerous chats about how we have connected so strongly not because of the joys in our life (although that is one reason) but mainly because we share with each other our struggles and hard times. I truly feel that we connect with one another when we show our vulnerability. THANK YOU for sharing this! And for being honest and truthful.

    • My pleasure, Brigette! I, too, have found that it is only when I open myself and share the difficult parts that I really connect with anyone (including myself). You are lucky to have sweet Morgan as a friend. She is a gem. Thank you for reading!

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