By DAVID PRAAMSMA
Each Christmas season I experience a strange and uncomfortable irony as an English teacher. Come December my wife morphs into a schoolmaster, I am demoted to student, and she serves me the most dreaded of all writing assignments: The End-of-Year, Family Christmas Letter.
The deadline is completely inflexible. Her editing is merciless. Invariably there is a lot of fidgeting and negotiating, but in the end she gets me to produce something just shy of having to call my parents.
Usually, stonewalling is my strategy. My second line of defense is more of a passive-aggressive strategy: I do the writing, but I refuse to do it as assigned. No niceties. No cutesy stories about daughter’s piano lessons, canoe trips or macaroni art projects. If I’m going to write it, it’s going to be a gritty picture of family life. When done, she would never want to use it. That was the plan anyway.
Of course nothing goes as planned and I have been writing colossally self-deprecating, family disaster stories for over 18 years. I have written about sinking my sailboat. I have written about nearly losing children during Canadian camping trips. I have written about accidentally taking the family river tubing through nudist neighborhoods.
That my wife even continues to package and send these letters out can only be interpreted as one of the most bravely hopeful acts she does all year. Like a message in a bottle, she flings out the mayday call each December for thoughts and prayers to at least 40 sympathetic households.
Not surprisingly one of the unintended consequences of almost 20 years of this type of writing is that it encourages a kind of tabloid journalist mentality as a parent, which I admit is not a good thing. You know the tradition has gone on too long when you find yourself actually beginning to refer to domestic debacles as “great material.” Maybe even find yourself drawn to them in an unhealthy, war-correspondent, kind-of-way. And of course this is to say nothing about the temptation to exaggerate just a bit. It is a sober reminder seeing my wife getting sympathetic shoulder squeezes from readers and then have to say things like “The fire really wasn’t that large”, or “It wasn’t the entire finger” or “Those creditors never really did that.”
For the record it must be stated that my annual 2-page lament might have as much to do with upending the traditional Christmas-letter as anything else. Year after year my Christmas mailbox gets stuffed with end-of-year family newsletters that are just a little too nice, frankly.
I think you know what I’m talking about: those 3rd person accounts that might have you believe a bubble of goodness has been enveloping the family from all calamity and misfortune. One arrived in my mailbox one Christmas in which the family photo presented every member (team sweaters) holding some type of farm animal. It was a thing to behold. Not only was everyone smiling synchronistically, but so were the animals. This was a high functioning family! I think I am not alone in saying it’s difficult to celebrate Christmas with the knowledge that even other folk’s livestock are more content than I am.
One of the running jokes in our Christmas letters is that the whole business is really just an exercise given to us by our family therapist. (Yes, more disinformation my wife has to explain in grocery aisles.) But it really raises another important reason for retooling this overly-genteel genre: catharsis. I don’t mean to get too clinical about the matter, but which of us wouldn’t benefit from a little end of the year purging? A kind of big literary exhale of the good, bad and the ugly – just to gear up for the next year, so-to-speak.
It bears mentioning that each year I also get a rather complicated year-end Christmas letter from an old college friend. She’s not shy about pulling back the curtain on that beautiful messiness of life. (It is a source of mutual mortification for our spouses that we are in a kind of unspoken competition.) She nimbly likens the cataloging of her family’s misadventures to knitting a scarf for a giraffe. And if she is the giraffe in this metaphor she has no shyness about sticking that neck out to share a few honest snapshots.
I suppose I could go on too. But the teacher is looking at me and she thinks I am working on ‘The Letter’. Things are overdue again and I am thinking about negotiating one nice family picnic story for more time. Or not.