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Christmas Letters: Why, What, and How to Write

Christmas Letters: Why, What and How to WriteI took a break from answering my mail this week because I was busy sending a little mail of my own: our family’s annual Christmas letter, which we wrote and assembled over Thanksgiving weekend.

While the process is still fresh on my mind, I decided to write a short series about Christmas letters, in hopes of inspiring others to keep this long-standing tradition going.

One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is getting a bundle of Christmas cards delivered daily to my mailbox. I love the festive stamps, the bright red and green envelopes, the glittery greeting cards, and the family portraits. But I especially love the long, newsy letters we receive this time of year.

I know I’m dating myself to say it, but before the advent of Facebook, email, or the Internet, sending Christmas letters was the preferred method for keeping in touch with far off family and friends. These annual updates played a vital role in conveying news and marking important events.

In the beginning, this was my goal in writing the letters our family sent out every year. My husband and I began our marriage with lots of friends and family scattered far and wide, yet little money for travel or long-distance phone calls. Our Christmas updates helped fill the gap. For the price of postage, we could send an annual summary of any recent changes in our lives, thereby doing our part to keep those relationships alive.

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I’ll be the first to admit that my earliest letters were a little dry. But as our family grew, my reasons for writing these letters changed. I found myself writing not so much to inform, but to remember.

Although I continued to share what I’d written with our family and friends, I was really writing for myself. The letters allowed me to freeze those moments in time that I wished never to forget — significant milestones, everyday graces, hard-learned lessons, crazy mistakes, funny remarks.

I wrote down the things that made me think or smile or laugh or cry, the things I wanted to treasure in my heart and to ponder for years to come.

It was a subtle shift, really, but it elicited an unexpected response. This willingness to share our foibles, to laugh at ourselves, to be sincerely vulnerable, allowed others to connect with us in a way that a brag sheet could never do. I guess it made our family more real and more accessible, because we began to get requests for extra copies of our updates.

Never mind that most of our letters were four pages long — people were passing them around the dinner table, forwarding them to friends, saving them in three-ring binders.

I had one friend tell me that her husband insisted on reading the entire thing aloud at his office party one Christmas. We even received postcards from complete strangers, asking to be put on our mailing list.

It was really bizarre.Glad Tidings: The First 25 Years of Flanders Family Christmas Letters, with recipes, quotes, and lots of fun ideas for celebrating Christmas as a family...

But it explains why, when I decided to publish our first twenty-five letters in a book to give our kids and grandkids, my husband urged me to make copies available to people outside our family, as well.

My husband reads all our old letters aloud every December. It is our way of keeping those memories alive, and it gives our younger kids a glimpse of what their older siblings were like when they were little, as well.

So that’s the WHY and the WHAT behind the letters I write. I’ll spend the rest of the week discussing the HOW: How we remember the year’s stories well enough to commit them to paper, how we manage to get decent family portraits with everybody smiling at the camera, how we set up our Christmas card assembly line to involve even the youngest members of the family, and how you can adapt this wonderful tradition and make it uniquely your own.

Of course, maybe you are already a Christmas letter writer. If so, I’d love for you to share how you do what you do in the comment section below!

Please note that this post was adapted from my book, Glad Tidings, and contains affiliate links (you can find my full disclosure statement here).

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