Illustrations by Dalbert B. Vilarino
Dec. 22, 2018
The truth is I’ve been wary of Christmas letters since Rebecca sent out that four-pager about her back surgery after she was rear-ended, with the medical evidence photos she used in court and later had blown up and liked to haul out after a couple of pina coladas to discuss during holiday dinners. She was one of a kind, may she rest in peace.
Rebecca, it turns out, was an exhibitionistic standout in the Christmas letter department. You couldn’t help but gobble up her Xmas annual. Most Christmas letters, on the other hand, have a well-deserved terrible reputation: for atrocious sentimentality, for jokes so corny you could plant them and for cherry-picking the “highlights” of family life while leaving out the good stuff such as Dad’s porn addiction and the details of why Eddie failed Grade 9 again. They forget that all happy families are alike. They aim for warm fellow feeling but seldom earn it, which is why we suspect them of being untruthful.
And yet, I wanted to write one. I wanted to see if the famous power of the spirit of Christmas was a match for the insoluble gloom of an atrocious year such as 2018. And it was definitely atrocious. Some days, even my puny complaints – first-world problems, if ever there were any – felt like symptoms of a brewing and darker catastrophe. My smartphone tells me I spend two and a half hours on it every day. I have never felt more connected to the rest of the world. And I have never been more frightened by it. The crazy internet brings me awful news and warns of a near-hopeless future, all backed by people on fire with fierce opinions. And yet the more these faceless friends tell me what I should believe and take action on and be certain of, the less sure I am of anything.
So I decided to take stock and write a Christmas letter anyway, to see if it is possible to be truthful about the world and still have a merry Christmas. Because the merry Christmas part matters, too, no matter what the hard-assed say: Isn’t that what we want out of this frantic holiday thing? We hope that if enough of us perform the same rituals often enough, we might find some common feeling we can count on. Isn’t that what a Christmas letter promises? Or am I just being a sap?
For inspiration, I turned to Pinterest. Pinterest – Facebook for the craft-minded, 250 million active users a month – is centre ice for do-it-yourself Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, Christmas recipes, Christmas gifts, Christmas wrapping paper and especially formats for Christmas letters. A lot of people put an enormous amount of effort into their Christmas letters, which take the form of newsletters, report cards, labels, recipes, top-10 lists. I was immediately put to shame.
I was drawn first to the ever-popular list format. The Pinterest model suggested I start with the phrase “Currently, I am,” and then fill in the blanks following ten numbered states of being (“thinking,” “wondering,” “dreaming”). The prompts were supposed to focus the would-be Christmas letter-writer’s mind. My list:
- Thinking … about my tax bill, which wakes me up at night.
- Wondering … why it costs $30 to park a car on the street for a day pretty much anywhere in downtown Toronto, and how quickly middle-class life will be forced out of the city as a result.
- Dreaming … about paying off the mortgage.
I never got to No. 4. You see the problem immediately. Christmas letters are for optimists. A lot of families who post their Christmas letters on Pinterest turn out to be quite religious.
Fortunately, Pinterest also posts suggestions on “How to Write an Amazing Christmas Letter!” Rule No. 2, for instance, is “Share successes without bragging,” for which Christmas letters have a terrible reputation. If you insist on letting your casual acquaintances know that your son has left diapers behind, you might want to point out that he also retains his passion for temper tantrums in the frozen-fish aisle. Humility, or at least the appearance of it, is the femur of the Christmas letter.
But while I admired how professional and good-looking any number of Christmas letters I saw on Pinterest were, I didn’t agree with quite a few of the rules. One rule, for instance, instructed the would-be Christmas letter-writer to “include enough detail to be interesting, but not about one event.”
But I would be more than happy to devote an entire Christmas letter to the developer who bought the house attached to mine and plans to flip it by adding a gigantic two-storey backyard addition that will block my backyard light and my view of the park. I could go on at length about the specifics of my reaction to being woken at 7:15 every morning (although the developer once claimed “My guys don’t start working till 8:00”) by the sound of the Little Driller Boy boring into our shared wall.
“Write about what you care about,” another Pinterest Christmas letter rule implored. “Write your letter in the form of a Christmas tree.”
Which doesn’t exactly joyfully shout “Christmas letter,” does it? But it’s truthful, and an authentic account of my year before Christmas.
Of course, you can always write about the dog. Dogs are the single-most common subject of Christmas letters. I’d write about my border terrier, Ginny, but – you’re about to think oh come on! – she died last month. It wasn’t a tragedy: She was old (15) and spent most of the last months of her life half-asleep next to the nearest available human (a perspective I fully understand). She was an easy dog to love. I keep thinking she is still here, keep expecting to see her at the front door, where she always was when I got home, and then I remember, like a sharp smack, that she is not there or anywhere any more. Beyond those details, which are emotions everyone feels when their dog dies, I would rather keep her memory private and to myself for a while, to secure her in my mind, and that doesn’t work in a Christmas letter, a document designed to be consumed en masse. That’s the central structural weakness of the Christmas letter genre. The truest and most moving writing is always done for its own sake, regardless of who reads it. Whereas a Christmas letter is usually composed with the intention of pleasing the expectations of the season.
Some history might help here.
Long ago, before Christmas became the capitalist rout it is today, pagans gave each other lucky charms (a sprig of holly, a bright fruit, a walnut) to survive the winter solstice. The solstice is the shortest, darkest day of the year; the annual return to terrifying blackness and chaos, to the origins of the cosmos. The pagan Christmas, the original pre-Christian feast, was intended as a spot of light in that darkness. But human beings are clever things. By the 1500s, the industrious, self-improving Germans – having invented the printing press – had graduated to giving each other cards to celebrate the new year.
The Christmas card per se didn’t show up until 1843, when Sir Henry Cole, who helped create the British Post Office and wanted more people to use it, enlisted the help of Queen Victoria to invent the tradition of sending Christmas cards. The first known ancestor of Hallmark depicted people helping the poor: the card opened onto another scene of people eating and drinking. (Snow scenes got popular after the terrible English winter of 1836.) Christmas cards caught on because Britain’s new railways suddenly made it cheaper to send mail. These days, more than a billion and a half Christmas cards are sent in North America alone, mostly by people over 55, and all but 15 per cent of them by women. The Christmas letter – an elaboration of a commercial invention that abstractly marks a pagan ritual – took off with the invention of e-mail.
This is the point in my Christmas letter – all Christmas letters do this, in one form or another – where I look back on the year just passed. It has been a hell of a year, and a year of hell.
So much happened I keep forgetting what happened. There was cannabis. There was Trump. (Pick a transgression. The Paris climate accord? The separated children? The pay offs? The lies? His enduring love for Vlad Putin and other butchers?) I found it hard to believe one guy could be such an all-round jackass, but Mr. Trump eventually convinced me.
Alas, he seemed to inspire Doug Ford, Ontario’s new Premier, to emulate his tactics. He seemed to inspire Andrew Scheer, the Leader of the federal Conservative party, in a similar way. Incidentally, Mr. Scheer was incapable of smiling in a news photograph in the House of Commons without looking as if he had just cracked a fart joke. I’m serious. Look at the pictures.
But the news was relentless even without Trump. A vast raft of prominent men were accused of sexual misbehaviour. (No wonder The Handmaid’s Tale was the story of the year.) Also, a lot of people died. They always do, but the mourning never seemed to stop in 2018. The Humboldt Broncos. Ten bystanders mowed down on a sidewalk by a loner named Alek Minassian. Parkland, Fla.; Las Vegas; Fredericton; the Danforth; a synagogue in Pittsburgh. More than 12,000 people died by gun this year in North America.
Time did its usual number, too: Roger Bannister (the first man to break the four-minute-mile mark), Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth, Bernardo Bertolucci, Aretha Franklin. That’s a lot of heroes to lose in a single year. I started to read the obits more closely, and dreaded every new page of sad tight boxes. Some days there were so many of them they seemed like a separate section of the newspaper. The boomers are starting to slip away.
And I haven’t even mentioned the weather (or Yemen or Tony Clement’s dirty selfies or the Uyghurs or the robots). Crop yields are down in 24 countries as a result of new weather made more intense by man-made climate change. Is it any wonder 40 per cent of adults in Britain and the United States sleep with a stuffed animal?
I know: depressing fare for a Christmas letter! I’m not surprised requests for a medically assisted death are on the rise in Canada. The world seemed incurable.
A doctor I know helps patients make their way through Canada’s new medically assisted dying process. I saw her the other evening, at a Christmas party. Someone asked if she would help a woman who has become immobilized by a paralyzing disease. The woman’s only companions are medical attendants who visit a few times a day.
My friend the doctor said she would look into shepherding the woman through her endgame.
“What about creating a wider community of care for her to join?” I asked.
“You have to realize,” my doctor friend gently replied, “these people often want this. Maybe they’re out of money. It’s their choice.”
“It doesn’t sound like much of a choice.”
Now that I have time to sit and write a Christmas letter, I find myself thinking about my friend the doctor, about the paralyzed woman spavined in her wheelchair, about the renovation next door. One of the reasons the extension next door is so big is that it features two enormous ensuite bathrooms. Apparently they really help if you want to flip a house for a lot of money. Rumour around the neighbourhood has it the developer is spending $800,000 on his reno. That would buy a lot of bathroom. I wonder how much care it might buy the seized-up woman.
Don’t get me wrong: my neighbour has a right to make his money as he can. I’m sure he’s a generous man. I don’t mean to be a grouch. Still, how you spend your money helps render the world you live in. We know this. I suspect that’s one reason we keep monkishly writing old-fashioned Christmas letters in this otherwise glorious season of capitalist plenty. We’re trying, however faintly, to make amends.
My brother, dear guy that he is, sends 70 Christmas cards a year. His ceremony is strict. He uses a fountain pen. He starts by writing the return address on ten envelopes, moves on to personalized messages on four cards and, while the ink dries, addresses four envelopes. He assembles, seals and stamps the envelopes, then repeats the process with four more cards, etc. He always saves ten extra cards “for people who send you cards that you didn’t send cards to.” His steadiness in this I find more touching than I want to say. Such a simple but impossibly deep thing, addressing a card and an envelope by hand – this paper of love, sent from one hand to another, through the dangerous air, from me to you, from here to there, maybe stilted, possibly illegible, but committed and sent all the same. Why do you do it, I asked him the other day. “To stay in touch,” my brother said. “To spread the love. To say, you are needed, you are connected.” He never sends anything as elaborate as a Christmas letter. “I never have the energy for that.” He’s a practical fellow. But the ritual matters, because a practice helps form a person.
The point is the ritual, not the form. Maybe that’s partly why this year felt has so unsettling. So many rituals – of human stewardship, of fellow feeling – fell by the wayside.
Many fall away unseen. My wife walked in the front door the other day laden with spruce boughs and shocking news: there was no mistletoe for sale at the local garden centre, and hadn’t been for two years owing to the drought and fires in Texas and California, which is where a lot of North American mistletoe comes from. Mistletoe – a tradition in Western society since the Celts started worshipping it 3,000 years ago – is another victim of climate change.
Not many people miss it. Florists don’t like it much: the French and English variety is prettier (it tends to grow on apple trees, but even Britain’s orchards have been disappearing), but it doesn’t travel well, whereas North American mistletoe, which grows more commonly on oak trees, looks like a green splodge. But mistletoe has an even longer Yule pedigree than the Christmas tree, which people have been carting indoors as a symbol of the lighted ladder to heaven since at least the early 1400s.
People started to kiss under mistletoe because the Celts considered it a symbol of fertility. The slimy white berries represented drops of semen from the cosmic bull that allegedly impregnated the goddess of the Earth. Such cards, those Celts! But there was a logic to their thinking. Mistletoe is parasitic, and relies on its host tree for nutrients, rather than on light and photosynthesis. So when the Druid intelligentsia noticed the berries blooming in November and December, at the darkest time of the year, they figured mistletoe had some magic juju.
What a crazy, old-fashioned idea! These days, we prefer the hard edges of science and commerce to the mysteries of superstition and ritual, because we like to believe we know what we’re doing and can control what happens. But it might be wise to hang on to a ritual or two – you know, in case we ever have to face the darkness of our own ignorance again, and need to remind ourselves (and never mind what our passports say) of where and what we come from. A Christmas letter will suffice until then.