Amer­i­can Icon: De­cod­ing the hol­i­day news­let­ter

• Why Michelan­gelo sculpted a snow­man an

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features -

SHEDD, ORE­GON. De­cem­ber 25, 1948. “Dear Friends,” wrote Marie Bus­sard, a home­sick mother of three. “Now that Christ­mas is here again . . . we find that there is too much news to fit into a note on each card. We have bor­rowed this idea of a Christ­mas News Let­ter from our friends the Cham­bers and the Danns.” So they’re the ones to blame.

Without re­al­iz­ing it, Bus­sard was among the pi­o­neers of a new prac­tice that spread across the post­war land­scape in the 1950s and ’60s, as more peo­ple moved away from their home­towns. A year-end rit­ual we have learned to love and hate si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the hol­i­day news­let­ter has al­ways been Amer­i­can­ish—ef­fi­cient, egal­i­tar­ian and in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar. It got a big boost in the 1960s when pho­to­copiers made rapid re­pro­duc­tion widely avail­able (as long as there was a so­lic­i­tous sec­re­tary in the of­fice to do the copy­ing) and the U.S. Postal Ser­vice brought out the first-class Christ­mas stamp, en­cour­ag­ing more peo­ple to send hol­i­day greet­ings. In the stamp’s de­but year, 1962, post of­fices sold 1 bil­lion, at 4 cents each.

To most of us, “Dear Friends” let­ters are highly dis­pos­able, but to a re­tired ar­chiv­ist named Su­san B. Strange they’re keep­ers—a unique record of daily life. “Th­ese let­ters are about fam­ily,” she says. “So of­ten, at least un­til re­cently, that has not been cap­tured by his­to­ri­ans.” Strange be­gan col­lect­ing hol­i­day let­ters in the late 1990s, and her per­sonal trove of about 1,500 from 100 fam­i­lies—in­clud­ing more than six decades of news from the Bus­sard fam­ily—is now pre­served at Har­vard’s Sch­lesinger Li­brary, a re­source de­voted to the his­tory of Amer­i­can women, where you will also find the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women’s state­ment of pur­pose, Ms. Mar­vel comics and a birth-con­trol brochure ti­tled “A Word to the Wives.”

It was women, af­ter all, who wrote most of the fam- ily hol­i­day cir­cu­lars in the Sch­lesinger ar­chive. Some were cu­ri­ously spe­cific: “Has any­one no­ticed that the recipe for cook­ies on the Quaker box has changed?” Some bragged about chil­dren. Oth­ers threw them to the wolves: “Philippe (13) is un­de­ni­ably a teenager . . . he knows ev­ery­thing, his room is a mess, the most im­por­tant thing in his life is his so­cial life.” Some rhymed: “The snow has been flyin’. / St. Nick’s on his way. / It’s time for a Barbara / Com­mu­niqué.” And a few veered into the dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory of pol­i­tics. One in­cluded a 1940s verse imag­in­ing Franklin D. Roo­sevelt telling the Devil why he should be al­lowed into hell. “I ru­ined their coun­try, their lives, & then / I placed the blame on my ‘9 Old Men.’ ”

Taken to­gether, the em­pha­sis, of course, is on the pos­i­tive, and the great Amer­i­can tal­ent for self-pro­mo­tion is much in ev­i­dence. One study of hol­i­day news­let­ters found that the lead­ing topic was travel ex­pe­ri­ences. Weather was big. Also near the top: Mom and Dad’s pro­fes­sional ac­com­plish­ments, the

kids’ scholas­tic achieve­ments and the fam­ily’s ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions. At the bot­tom of the list were per­sonal and work prob­lems. An­other pub­lished in 2007 doc­u­mented a new fin de siè­cle syn­drome: “busy­ness.” An­a­lyz­ing about a half-cen­tury of news­let­ters, Ann Bur­nett of North Dakota State Univer­sity saw an in­crease in the use of words such as “hec­tic,” “whirl­wind” and “crazy.” Through their an­nual hol­i­day let­ters, she says, peo­ple were “com­pet­ing about be­ing busy.”

The tra­di­tional Christ­mas card was con­sid­ered a vul­gar time-saver when it was first in­tro­duced in the 1840s, so per­haps it’s no won­der that al­most as soon as news­let­ters ap­peared, they too be­came a punch­line. In 1954 the At­lantic Monthly sneered that “no Christ­mas let­ter av­er­ages fewer than eigh­teen ‘!’s,’ ‘!!’s’ or ‘(!)’s’ per page.” Ann Lan­ders, in her syn­di­cated ad­vice col­umn, pub­lished com­plaints about the so-called “brag rags,” such as one first printed in 1968 ask­ing why “nor­mally in­tel­li­gent peo­ple seem to take leave of their senses at Christ­mas.” Um­brage, of course, was taken. “How can you, in good con­science, en­cour­age peo­ple to not share their happy news in hol­i­day let­ters?” chided Pam John­son, the founder of the Se­cret So­ci­ety of Happy Peo­ple. “We live in a pop­u­lar cul­ture that all too of­ten makes peo­ple feel rot­ten for be­ing happy and even worse for shar­ing it. . . . Happy mo­ments are good things that need to be shared more—not less.” As cul­ture wars go, this was pretty tame, but an Emily Post In­sti­tute sur­vey showed that Amer­i­cans were sharply di­vided, with 53 per­cent ap­prov­ing of the hol­i­day let­ter and 47 per­cent hat­ing it.

The in­ter­net should have put an end to this oddly fas­ci­nat­ing cus­tom. Who needs a once-a-year fam­ily-fun mar­ket­ing re­port when Face­book and In­sta­gram can up­date friends and strangers every minute? But com­pared with so­cial me­dia’s beep­ing, hec­tor­ing frag­ments, a printed let­ter ar­riv­ing in the mail—the stamp cost half a dol­lar!! sent from an ac­tual place!! com­plete sen­tences!! touched by an ac­tual per­son!! a real sig­na­ture!!!—now seems like a pre­cious hu­man doc­u­ment, as valu­able as an an­cient pa­pyrus. If only peo­ple weren’t too busy to read them.

About 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans will send Christ­mas let­ters or cards this hol­i­day sea­son.

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