In the light of the unending electronic day that is Facebook, perhaps it is not so surprising that there seem to be fewer of the annual epistolary chronicles of our lives that are the Christmas letter. In fact it was Facebook with its annual widget that mines our data to try to present some gems from the year past that got me thinking about Christmas letters. Facebook, as it mediates more and more of our communication, is getting in the Christmas letter business too in a way, and it is getting wiser at it by allowing some more customization from the get go. And perhaps it was that very editing—the nature of the editing that we do in crafting our status updates, the things for which we never have status updates at all—which got me thinking. In some very real ways the editing and exclusion in both of these endeavors, in our brightly colored,laser-printed pieces of paper and our pastiche of ones and zeroes, are all of a piece, in ways both positive and not.
One similarity which is not really the focus of this piece but is worth noting is that Christmas letters and Facebook status updates and photos, etc. both can at times produce amongst singles a mixed set of emotions: joy for friends and a pain for oneself. Christmas letters are a travel diary of mile markers folk have passed in their lives, and if one has never passed them or the they seem hopelessly out of sight, well, that can be a challenge. This does not make these letters, or their analogous FB updates, bad; they simply are, and they are annoying or cloying or are winsome invitations to shared joy pretty much in reflection of the hearts of the different people who send them. It takes a thorough going narcissist and wallower not to want to share in the joy of loved ones on some level.
Christmas letters, though, are an art that that can easily be botched, even by those with the very best of hearts, and this is why they are often maligned I think. But in this area much charity and grace are called for. Moreover, it is the ones that border on being laughable or make one feel like an unaccomplished loser, which make the good ones really shine: the witty ones, the funny ones, the wise ones. My niece G, a pastor’s daughter, writes the best letters—self-deprecating and wise, with funny asides about her brothers.
What I was really thinking about as I created my own Christmas letter this morning—on my iPhone, in my bed by adding an executive summary to the photos Facebook had automatically mined for me—was the things that never get included, the things that do not make the Christmas letter or upon which we never invite comment by creating a status update. Perhaps there are many more that do make the cut that really ought to have been left un-included, but that is a matter for a different reflection. But there are those moments of which we cannot, indeed ought not, tell because they are either not solely ours to tell or which cannot be told in either media with faithfulness and care. Indeed, some of these things can only be read in the letter of our very lives—perhaps can be only read in real-time—along with those we love best. Indeed, it is those folks who are there writing the letter along with us. Other things ought not be told because they are ours to write about alone, to read about alone, to reflect upon what we have been taught, on who we are becoming. Some things cannot be told because we do not know ourselves, whether we have become anything new at all, whether we have grown.
People are far more like books than letters. We are books with chapters, chapters which more often than not do not close along with the closing of the year. We are books which, indeed, we are not even writing ourselves, though we are given the grace of being co-creators. And, as with books, we may not see the import of an event that happened this year or a person we met or a situation in which we found ourselves until many years down the road.
Even so, some novels are epistolary and so perhaps the discipline of writing a letter at the end of the year is a good one. Or perhaps it ought to be two letters, one for our dear ones—a true, honest letter made with as much wisdom and artistry and craft as we can muster—and another for our own keeping—even if it is a simply a mental one reflected upon over a cup of tea—a rough draft of what we know of our own story for that year, and our intimations and hopes for the next.