Write a Better Year End Letter
Rachel Marie Stone
*** This piece appeared as Rachel’s column in our
Advent 2018 magazine issue (SUBSCRIBE NOW ),
but it was too good not to share online!
It’s a tradition to mock people who send the kind of holiday letters (and accompanying photograph, preferably snapped on a mountaintop or an exotic vacation spot) that seem designed to elicit envy. Their children have always achieved more than yours; they’re in better shape; they know more about food and wine than you do; and are more skilled at framing their own consumption as virtue than you are. They get a lot more done than you do—more books read, more trips taken, more hours worked, or, conversely (perversely?), they are keen to announce just how centered, non-striving, and so not as addicted to screen-time as you are. In recent years, they may have ‘purged’ most of their crap to make room for only the highest-quality things that spark the most joy for them; this coming year, they are likely to have been cultivating a Scandinavian brand of coziness, or style of parenting, or way of living in nature, so prepare yourself: it’s going to be all about quality time and quilts, socks and stews and fireplaces, or else wellness and meditation, or more time in the forest. They will have more of all of this than you will, and theirs will be better.
As typed and printed letters begin to seem quaint (ripe, no doubt, for hipster ‘reclaiming’; I predict typewriters will be involved) in this age of the instant digital update, year-end “highlights” on social media have begun cropping up. These highlights present an opportunity to rebrag that which has already been bragged: the job promotion, the books published, the trips taken. I have seen them done badly more often than I’ve seen them done well.
Yet it is possible to write a good holiday letter or year-end post. The good ones are attentive to what the reader might find interesting and do not focus inordinately on the letter writer or their family as such. They take a light tone and recount books read and recommended, interesting (and maybe even local and non-exotic) sites visited, skills learned or revisited, the death or acquisition of a beloved pet, funny anecdotes or quotes from children (use sparingly). Bad letters and posts somehow manage to be about you even when they are ostensibly about a trip you took or a book you read, and it’s hard to nail down why that is. One post I saw alluded briefly to the fact that the year had been a hard one and then breathlessly recounted nearly a dozen items on the order of things like beautiful kitchen remodels, wonderful trips, self-congratulatory reflections on the meaningfulness of one’s own profession, and countless cozy, convivial evenings with friends.
(That’s the other thing that the bad letter-writers tend to do better than you—they have more, and more meaningful, friendships. Good letter writers manage to make you feel like you’re really their friend; bad letter writers leave you feeling insecure and excluded.)
The worst letters manage to recount things in such a way as to be more about the writer than the reader. Bad letters also tend to be breezily unaware of the privilege they reflect, or else coat their brags with a glaze of gratitude. Within the Christian communities in which I grew up, people often shrugged off their success and wealth by saying things like “God has been good to us,” or “we’re blessed.” (The more secular analogues for the digital age are probably the hashtags #blessed and #grateful when accompanying a post designed as envy-stimulus; most people I follow seem to use these hashtags ironically these days.) These rhetorical moves imply that the person in question is not merely the beneficiary of good fortune, but of the special favor of the deity. There’s also the absurd implication that God’s priorities are way out of whack—somehow he’s able to provide your family with the perfect vacation in Barcelona while ten million Syrian families wander as refugees? By all means, be grateful for what you have, but be forewarned: Declarations of gratitude and spiritual demurrals do not neutralize brags, and may in fact augment them.
It’s probably impossible not to alienate some people with your year-end letter or post. The bare fact of your having been organized enough to write something coherent is enough to make some people feel inadequate and ashamed. But be aware: for every mention of a new pet or a wedding or a new baby, there is bound to be, in your circle of acquaintances, at least one pet buried, a divorce finalized, a miscarriage or IVF failure. For every mention of a job promotion, at least one job lost; for every new house or apartment, an eviction or foreclosure. You get the idea. Of course you can’t entirely prevent your news from stinging some people (some people sit around waiting to be stung), but even recognizing that your words have that power may help you bring that elusive touch—some call it class, others grace, but you can think of it as a simple awareness of others—to your writing.
Rachel Marie Stone teaches English at the Stony Brook School in Stony Brook, New York. Her writing about food, faith, justice, public health, and maternal health has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, theChristian Century, Books & Culture, Sojourners, In Touch magazine, Religion News Service, Patheos, and more. Her 2018 book Birthing Hope (IVP Books) was recently named one of Library Journal’s best Religion / Spirituality Books of the Year.