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Go Ahead And Mail Your Boring Holiday Cards

After he and his son Simon encountered both Santa Claus and Superman in an ice cream parlor, NPR's Alan Greenblatt sent out this holiday photo in 2010.
Courtesy Alan Greenblatt
After he and his son Simon encountered both Santa Claus and Superman in an ice cream parlor, NPR's Alan Greenblatt sent out this holiday photo in 2010.

It's always chic to make fun of holiday letters. People can't win, whether they earnestly recount their fellowship missions to poor countries (self-important), brag about European vacations (must be nice) or simply bore with accounts of school plays or travails in their gardens.

The habit of knocking holiday letters is now not just snark shared between friends, but has become an annual journalistic tradition.

Holiday letters can be "insufferable" and "deadly boring," Laura Vanderkam complains in Fast Company. "There's often a subtext of social competition," according to Peggy Drexler in The Wall Street Journal. And those are in articles that defend the tradition.

"Dear friends and relatives, it's not you — it's your holiday cards. They're ridiculous!" Eric Hoover tweeted Friday, promoting his Washington Post article on the subject.

In previous years, some have argued social media have made the whole idea of sending out holiday cards not just superfluous but annoyingly redundant.

"There's little point to writing a Christmas update now," Nina Burleigh wrote last year for Time. "The urge to share has already been well sated."

The holiday card has indeed, like so much else, been forever altered and perhaps endangered by the Internet. What I don't understand is the urge to dance on its grave.

Perfectly Posed

Hoover's complaint is that too many photo cards look like they've been torn from some mythic catalog of My Great and Clever Self and are wholly impersonal. He's put off not just by the preening he sees in the perfectly arranged family photographs, but the fact that he's receiving pre-printed messages that have nothing to do with him.

"Even the font seems smug," Hoover writes.

Oh, smug font. How upsetting.

There's no question that people have mixed motives when they send out their cards. No doubt they want to put the best face on their own lives, offering an annual report marked more by pride, perhaps, than honesty.

Does this surprise anyone? Would it somehow be more festive to recount the slings and arrows, the illnesses and petty failures that may have marked or even dominated the year just ending? In sending out a mass mailing, even to family and friends, there's a thin line between heartfelt and TMI.

It's Just A Joke

I started sending out holiday cards maybe about 25 years ago. My photos have always been jokes, admittedly inspired at first by the idea of mocking the type of wholesome photo — often showing the family, with the dog, gathered by the tree — that was the style at the time.

Like Halloween costumers, I usually make fun of some moment in the news. Some of the images have been in poor enough taste that I ended up breaking down and including a letter as well, to soften the tone.

In recent years, I've come to enjoy writing and sending letters on their own merit. It's a way of lending greater coherence to my own life's story — and connecting with people I'm often otherwise barely in touch with — that maybe works better than a 10-second tweet or series of status updates.

Some people, in some years, like the letter a lot better than the gag photo.

Thinking Of You

But what's the harm if they don't? It's a friendly gesture, not a writing contest. And, as Drexler points out in her Wall Street Journal article, it's not as if many people are in any great danger of having friends send them more than one letter per year.

Whether driven by the desire to boast or amuse or simply good, old-fashioned guilt, holiday cards and letters are almost certainly well-intentioned. Like any gift, they are a sign that a person thought of you when you were absent, demonstrating that you have been in her thoughts, if only for a moment, and thus have some meaning in her life.

That's true even if the attempt was lame. If you wouldn't send back a letter stamped "Return to Sender: Insufficiently Moving," why would you complain about it in print?

Good will to men, you know?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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