How to write a holiday letter 101

Some of you may remember my attempt at writing and sending a digital only holiday letter last year, in order to skip post office lines and stamp purchases. The bitter among you will be happy to know I didn’t get away with it, and am back to sending my holiday letter by snail mail, complete with photo and festive stamp. For this year’s theme, I set out to even the letter writing burden by offering a step-by-step manual on how to write a passable holiday letter. At the insistence of many, I’ve copied it below. Feel free to share with the non-holiday card writers on your own Christmas list.


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Warm Winter Wishes, and Merry Festivus!

Friends, for the past few holiday seasons, I’ve noted an alarming decline in Christmas card sending and letter writing. Thinking that perhaps holiday letters are a thing of the past, I opted out myself last year, a decision that backfired when I tried to post our Christmas photo on Facebook only. Even at the time, I knew how lame this was. And then you all told me, just to be sure.

Clearly, I can’t win, so I’m back with a new letter. This time, to encourage you non-writers out there, I’ve included step-by-step instructions to writing your very own holiday letter, of which you can be proud, and which your friends and family will cherish always. Or at least until the post-Christmas de-clutter session, when it will doubtless be swept into the trash.

Step 1: Decide on the tone of your letter

Most letter-writers opt for a traditional informative letter. There’s nothing wrong with this. Not everyone likes to include sarcasm and shame in their letter, as I do.  A good informative letter will hit all the highlights of the past year…or past decade, if it’s been that long since you sent a greeting. You know who you are (and so do I). Some writers like to organize their informative letter chronologically from January to December, while others like to divide it by family member. If you want to get crazy, create a newsletter format or calendar template and add photos. There are no wrong answers here, with the exception of writing from the point-of-view of the family pet. Just, don’t.  You think it will be cute, but it only comes across as sad.

Step 2: Draft your letter

Good news: no one expects the great American novel (which is my hint that neither should you). As long as basic grammar is respected, all anyone really wants in a letter is information and entertainment. Possible topics include (but are not limited to): how old are the kids? What sports do they play, and what activities do they pursue? Don’t have kids? Tell me about the dog or the cat (just be sure to identify that it is indeed a dog or a cat, or I’ll read for half a page assuming sweet little Abby has a very serious biting problem).

Step 3: Revise, thinking of your reader

Your holiday letter is a gift to me, the recipient. Depending on how you feel about me, you may wish to revise your tone to portray warmth, seek a laugh, or induce jealousy. (Don’t pretend you’re above it.) A word of caution, however: if you fill your letter with stunning achievements, readers will assume you’re either a liar or an asshole…or both. Also beware of disclosing too much. If your deadbeat husband lost his job (again) or you got yourself a shiny DWI on the same night your kid got arrested, maybe that’s a subject for immediate family only. You know, the ones who already signed up for this mess. Pity’s about as off-putting as egg nog.

However, if your year was pretty decent, with the expected ups and downs of a normal existence, do your letter recipients a favor and don’t skimp on the details. Example: if you’re rocking the cross fit gym, include a photo, so the rest of us can jumpstart our New Year resolutions. And if you got a big promotion, be sure to write your return address very clearly so my kids can hit you up for cookie dough sales and read-a-thon pledges.

Maybe you’re wondering what to do if your year is a bit…light…on accomplishments or events. Don’t worry; you can work with that. Haven’t lost the ‘baby fat’ from baby Joe yet? Simply leave out the fact that Joey’s off to college this year.  And does ‘college’ really mean trucker school? Just call it a ‘vocational calling’. Is your sister off  ‘finding herself’ in Sedona? Phrase it in a way that channels ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ instead of ‘methadone clinic’. Feel free to spin doctor the heck out of the thing, but be advised: those of us playing along at home will be reading between the lines.

Still not sure you’re ready to start? Below, find an easy-to-duplicate example letter for your convenience. I’ve even filled it out with my own family details for inspiration. Ready? Here we go:

Happy holidays. (You can substitute Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah here, but I advise against it: Merry Christmas sounds like you’re trying to make a heavy-handed ‘reason for the season’ statement, and no one can agree on how to spell Hanukkah.)   

2013 was a busy year for the Whitley household. (See what I did there? While unoriginal, this opening line is solid choice because it’s universally relatable. Editor types will protest the starting of a sentence with a number, but I think we can get away with it.) We clocked over 5,500 miles in the car on various road trips, and flew no fewer than 23,188 air miles. (Stats are effective but sometimes need to be accompanied by a visual; ie, we drove 2,345,246 football field lengths this year.) Our travels took us from Alaska to the Yucatan to Wyoming to Alberta.

As usual, the boys played a wide variety of sports in 2013. Calvin wins the award for furthest away games—six weekends in Portland—now that he plays premiere club soccer (an untrained eye might interpret this as a brag, but anyone in club sports knows pity—for the parents—is the correct emotion) and Nate snags the ‘sports sampler’ trophy after trying football, basketball, and cross-country at both Mac in spring 2013 and South in fall 2013. Tobias continues with rec soccer (coached by mom, poor boy) and we all spend as much time as possible on the ski slopes, in the US as well as Canada. The kids are currently in 3rd, 7th, and 9th grade, which means we get to car pool to and from three separate schools: The Siskiyou School (Toby’s new Waldorf school), Mac Middle School, and South High.

Charlie continues to work at Spring Air, which he loves, and I now work full time from home as a writer and editor. (If you’re reading between the lines as you’ve been taught, this means do not bother sending your kids over here with their pledge sheets.) My first novel has garnered the interest of a literary agent, so I expect more blood, sweat, and tears to be extracted in its name in 2014.

In between work, school, sports, and travel, we made time for the important things in 2013…reading and TV. (People will judge you for this type of thing, but I say, keep it real.) We’ve certainly had our moments, but day to day, we worked hard, played hard, ran around a lot, camped and backpacked, swam and skied, studied and probably slept too little. Definitely ate too much ice cream. Almost certainly ate too few vegetables. We lived as deliberately as we could in a world that spins too fast: we cherished the seasons and the nature around us here in Oregon, we made conscious decisions, we gathered together as often as we could, and we generally tried to make our tiny corner of Earth a little bit better.

I’m a pretty open book on social media (she said, winning the understatement of the year award). Find Charlie and me on Facebook, or check the Pit Stops for Kids YouTube channel or Twitter feed for travel clips.  The Never True Tales blog is still in operation as well, although the kids don’t allow me to write nearly as many embarrassing stories as they did before they could read. (An argument against childhood literacy if I ever heard one.)

Have a wonderful 2014, and don’t forget: I’ll be looking for your own letter this year! New Years and Valentine’s Day submissions will be accepted on a case-by-case basis.

Amy, Charlie, Nate, Calvin, and Tobias


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