Christmas cards friends and family will actually read

Written by reagan alexander
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A bright, concise Christmas family newsletter will avoid season's bleatings

Christmas cards friends and family will actually read
(Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Consider the person you least want to communicate with, and ask yourself if you really want them to have all that information

— Laura Brown of Wordgrrls.com on self-editing your Christmas cards and letters

Christmas is a joyous time, filled with family, friends, gifts and gatherings. It's also time to torture others with the traditional family newsletter, the postbox's equivalent to an indigestible fruitcake at the doorstep. For most people, a mention of holiday newsletters will lead to visions of boastful parents, garishly festive, ill-fitting wool sweaters and Christmas photos dancing in their heads. But now, this annual missive has a chance to return to its glory days when it was a tool that pulled in people on the periphery of your life. A thought-out, restrained, well-meaning Christmas card or letter will stand out above the deluge of prosaic Crimbo cards that litter recycling bins. It can resurrect the true meaning of the season, which is to bring a smile to those it's sent to, remind them how frightened your infant is of Santa Claus and how difficult it is to corral an entire family for a group photo that doesn't end in a trip to the emergency room.

Know your audience

Crafting a Christmas letter should be more time intensive and personal than a simple tweet or a status update.

"The language we like to use (is) 'Only to those that you think will be interested', says Daniel Post Senning, co-author of the 18th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" and spokesman for the Emily Post Institute. "I think it's appropriately broad to allow for people to take a chance and maybe say, 'I met this person and they seem genuinely interested in me and my life.' "

Choose wisely when it comes to the actual mailing list. It's OK to forget about most of those Facebook friends. You can also cross off associates who probably aren't that interested in your son's crayon artistry. The mailing list should be dictated less by your level of interests and more by those of the potential recipients.

"Be honest with yourself," Senning says, "and ask yourself, 'Is this person going to care? Is this at all important, or could it be important to this person?'"

Brevity is the saviour of wit... And postage

Think about your schedule during the Christmas holidays and all that free time you have to spend with the letters you get from your friends and family. If you didn't have much free time at all, chances are your letter targets don't either. That's another reason why you should keep your own news brief and simple.

Choose the highlights of the year, touch on each aspect with appropriate levity, and, most importantly, edit yourself. You may have a lengthy list of people you have deemed to be worthy enough recipients, but none of them want a 40-page brochure that chronicles restaurants, medical procedures or how your little one starred in "The Nutcracker" as an iconic column.

"I would keep it under a page just to get it read," Senning says with a chuckle. "Again, that's really a question of personal preference, but I would want to entice the people that I send it to that with the idea that, 'Yes, there is an ending, and you're going to get there.' I would want them to see that from the start."

In short, anything that requires a staple to hold it together is too much.

"Three paragraphs of text should be plenty," says Laura Brown, creator and editor of the creative writing site Wordgrrls.com. "Stick to one side of a full sheet of paper, add images and illustrations, and if you have kids they can decorate the back of (it) with their own drawings.

"A newsletter doesn't need to be continued on the next page; one page with about 200 words is just fine."

Toasts over boasts

Christmas cards friends and family will actually read
(Jamie Grill/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

It's probably best not to listen to all the holiday voices in your head. But the one that reminds you to show a modicum of restraint can save you from the cardinal sins of holiday newsletters; braggadocio and sharing a bit more than your target audience wants to hear.

"You want to stay away from bragging and boasting, and include positive news that's not too personal," Senning said. "If you have a question about tone, I refer people to what I call the Rule of Too, and that is a way to cultivate that little discretionary voice in your own head. If you're asking yourself, 'Is this too much?' then you probably should go ahead and defer to that discretionary voice."

Briefly put, keep your ego under wraps while you're writing your newsletter. Your audience only wants to hear so much about the intimate details of your wonderful life.

"When we talk about positive news, it's important to remember not to get too personal," Senning added. "You can have an update that says something along the lines of 'Jim is recovering from his surgery,' but they don't need the additional details that the gallbladder was removed and it was six sizes too big, and then you include a picture. Keep it simple and say, 'Jim is home and recovering well.' "

The exception would be if the gallbladder in question bears a striking resemblance to Kris Kringle. In that case, it would be borderline criminal not to include a photo.

The gift of time

Some people approach the holidays with a near surgical precision. They take the family photo, replete with matching reindeer sweaters, sometime in August. Their Christmas shopping is done in November, and their family newsletter was written, edited, rewritten and then edited once more before it was delivered.

Then there are the rest of us who live in the real world, where organising and writing a family update is a Herculean task.

Don't wait until the last minute. Start slowly and start early. Work in some time to put the first draft of the letter away for a few days. That way you can come back to it with a fresh set of reasonably unbiased eyes.

"People either tend to say too much or not enough, so if you tend to babble once you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, read it over the next day, or the next week," Brown said. "Decide if you really want to tell everyone that much about yourself, your plans and what you've been doing. Consider the person you least want to communicate with, and ask yourself if you really want them to have all that information and go from there."

It's also makes sense to save yourself the stress of sending off 100 letters.

"Write it, but always give yourself a chance to reread it," Senning said. "A great tactic is to reread your material out loud after you've had a minute away from it. It's a great way to assess tone, and you can ask yourself as you hear the words out loud if this was someone else talking to you, how would you feel about it?"

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