Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Holiday Letter

I write a holiday letter most years and include it with our Christmas card to friends and family who we see rarely throughout the year.  You probably receive a few of these.  I find them informative and well-meaning, but there are some that go too far and should be stamped Warning! TMI.  
Ours is usually less than one page (12 font, 1.5 spacing).   I mention vacations, status of the family pet, and maybe the publication of my latest book.  Mostly, it’s just to say we’re well and looking forward to the coming year.  
I’ve seen some holiday letters that border on autobiographies, multiple pages in length, requiring bulk postage.  As you read them, it makes you wonder how anyone could pack that much activity into a single year or even how they were able to remember it all.  I appreciate them taking the time to compose the letter and include me on their mailing list, but I’m not sure all the information is intended for my consumption.
Trying to make one letter apply to a diverse mailing list of friends and family is one of the dangers of the holiday letter.  The “need to know” varies greatly for each recipient.  Your wife’s electrolysis might be okay to share with her sisters, but your Great Uncle Henry probably doesn’t appreciate the need, nor does he care about the results.  Similarly, last fall’s septic tank backup during your wife’s high school reunion might be humorous to your college buddies, but should be left out of the letters to your boss and pastor.              
Another pitfall of the annual holiday letter is sounding boastful.  I can understand wanting to make these letters upbeat, but not everyone cares what a great deal you got on your new Lexus LS400.  In fact, there are many who believe any car that doesn’t come from Detroit represents a threat to the U.S. economy.  Also, I’m sure your wife might be thrilled to get her fifth David Yurman bracelet to stack on her right wrist, but 90% of the population wouldn’t know David Yurman from David Bowie. 
My simple rules for holiday letters are: keep them short, focus on people and events rather than things, and if it doesn’t apply to everyone, leave it out.  Admittedly, these rules may lead to a dull, lifeless letter, but you aren’t going for a Pulitzer.   The objective is to start next year with as many friends as you had at the end of this one.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Want to enjoy Christmas? Reset your expectations!

It’s taken me about 50 years, but I’m finally able to relax and enjoy the holiday season.  It was easy to relax once I understood why the Bermuda Triangle of holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s) stressed me out.  I had unrealistic expectations.

Nothing creates stress more than unrealistic expectations, and nothing creates unrealistic expectations more than trying to live up to past holiday experiences.  For example, once you’ve given your wife a diamond necklace (or a diamond anything) for Christmas, you’re doomed to failure in meeting her future gift expectations.  Also, have you ever counted the wrapped presents around your tree on Christmas Eve trying to remember how the tally compared to last year?  Where does it end?
The worst assignment you can ever receive is the task of planning the company’s Christmas party.  For weeks, all you’ll hear is how great the past parties have been, how each year the venues, the decorations, and the music have grown to an epic level.  Your only options are to either seek new employment or rent Club Med Cancun and put Mrs. Claus in a thong bikini pushing a bar cart as Bruno Mars plays “White Christmas” to the beat of “Uptown Funk.”  
"Are you sure we have enough lights?"  It’s the question that haunts most married men at Christmas. At one point in my life, the rows of boxes in our attic containing Christmas decorations looked like the warehouse in the closing scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.   We had enough lights and garland to cover every peak, valley, post, window and railing on our house, plus every shrub and tree in the yard.  Scaling back was never an option.  After all, the neighbors never did. 
It’s hard to break escalating holiday expectations, but eventually expectations hit a ceiling with nowhere to go but down.  It’s like alcoholics hitting bottom before realizing the seriousness of their addiction. Having hit the ceiling, I have a few suggestions for simplifying the holiday season:
  • Christmas is for children.  Opening presents on Christmas morning is for those age 12 and under.   
  • All adults in your extended family (parents, siblings, spouses of siblings, etc.) should draw names from a gift pool.  Everyone gets one gift and gives one gift. This still allows a reason to gather, but takes the emphasis off presents.
  • Everyone should share their wish list, preferably on Amazon, where you can order/ship with one click.  If everyone complied, you’d never need to go to the mall.   
  • Don’t exchange Christmas gifts with your spouse.  Instead, treat each other to gifts throughout the year whenever you feel like it, focusing on vacations and special events versus accumulating more stuff.
  • Attend only Christmas parties you want to attend, not those you feel you must attend.   
  • Home decorations should fit into two average-size boxes and take less than two hours to put up.
  • Keep your artificial Christmas tree decorated all year.  It should be small enough to fit in the den closet during off season.
These suggestions will help get your Christmas back under control, but if you really want to reset your holiday expectations and regain the Christmas spirit, there are better ways.  Redirecting some or all of your holiday time and budget to those less fortunate will deliver more gratifying results.  While some of us are privileged to struggle with escalating holiday expectations, there are way too many others with little or no anticipation of a happy holiday.
Adopt a needy child or a family for Christmas, providing them with food, clothing, and toys for their holiday.  Donate to a food bank for those needing a hot holiday meal.  Deliver a couple bags of dog food to your local animal shelter.  Better yet, take a shelter dog for a walk, giving it a moment of freedom to be your companion.

Fifty years is a long time to figure it out.  It shouldn’t have taken me that long.