Write a Holiday Letter That Doesn’t Suck

An estimated 1.6 billion holiday cards will be purchased and sent this season, according to the Greeting Card Association. And that number has remained surprisingly steady over the past several years. 

“People were starting to use email as a replacement, but over time they found they weren’t making the same meaningful connection,” Peter Doherty, executive director of the Greeting Card Association, told the Chicago Tribune last December. 

It’s worth noting that Doherty’s figures don’t include custom photo cards that you can order from Walgreens or Shutterfly. 

Regardless of how many greeting cards and photo cards are sent during the 2019 holiday season, I estimate that more than 75 percent of holiday letters included with those cards will, to put it bluntly, be filled with crap.

I don’t mean to sound crass but, come on! Do you really want to know about all of the scholarship offers your college roommate’s son received to play soccer? Or about the third vacation home the cousin you never see just purchased? Or about how those people you met on vacation last summer can’t believe how this year went by so darn fast?

Things once got to the point in my home when members of the family would take turns reading aloud holiday letters we received — a harmless form of merry mocking all in good fun.

That said, if you’d like to make your season’s greetings stronger this year, try writing a holiday letter that contains the following five key elements:

1. A powerful opening sentence or paragraph.

Years ago, I began a holiday letter with this:

Well, it’s just past 11 p.m. on the last Saturday in November, and the house is asleep except for our home’s corner office, where I’m listening to Iron Maiden’s “Can I Play With Madness.” The song is apropos…

Friends still bring up that opening line in regular conversations.

Another year, here was my intro sentence:

Let me get straight to the point: Lisa, Kayla, Tyler and I are lucky to be alive right now.

Who wouldn’t want to keep reading?

2. The most relevant highlights of your year, minus all the details.

Don’t confuse, bore, incite or waste people’s time. Simply share reasons why the year was memorable for you, give an example or two, express your holiday sentiments and then sign off. If your letter runs longer than one page, edit it. Remember, your readers are supposed to be people you love; you want them to love you back.

3. At least one photo.

If you’re writing about your young children, whom most of your intended recipients probably have never met, we need to know what these kids look like. Or if the highlight of your year was adopting a new Labrador Retriever, show us a picture of the newest addition. Any funny image will do. Here’s the photo I included with our family’s holiday letter several years ago (note the angry turtle):

cropped turtle farm

4. As little braggadocio as possible.

People who can’t believe how absolutely phenomenal their lives have turned out really CAN believe that; they’re just trying to be humble. In reality, they’re pushing the limits of obnoxiousness. Please don’t be obnoxious.

5. Sincerity.

This time of year often brings out the worst in people. Either they have too much to do in too little time, the holidays dredge up unwanted memories or they’re natural-born Scrooges. We’re at the point where many people have abandoned the practice of sending holiday cards, let alone letters. “Posting ‘Merry Christmas to all my friends’ and an elf photo on Facebook on Dec. 25 will be good enough,” they tell themselves (and others). No, it won’t. Words still matter, which means cards and letters still matter. And don’t hesitate to throw in some strategically placed humor. Last weekend, a friend told me the funniest and most enjoyable two Christmas letters she reads each year are from a college freshman — who has been writing her family’s letter for years — and me. That’s one of the best early Christmas presents I could have received.

One more note: People can spot phoniness from a mile away — just like that insanely decorated house with reindeer prancing around a rooftop manger scene. Just be yourself. People who read your holiday letter will appreciate that. 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.