5 Tips for Writing the Perfect Christmas Letter

Every year we get between 10 and 20 Christmas letters. I read every single one, and keep them in a basket in the dining room so visitors and family members can easily scoop them up. I confess, a few of theses letters are terrible and the brunt of jokes and snickers. These are usually the letters that are braggadocios with self aggrandizing references to brilliant children, extravagant purchases, deserving job promotions, and luxurious vacations.

Sometimes I'm tempted to send responses to these letters saying, "Merry Christmas from the ordinary old Burgoynes who have pretty nice kids who haven't won any astounding awards, and I'm still at the bottom of the food chain in the same old government job and we're upside down on our mortgage since the crash so we probably will never move into a bigger house, and when we vacation we mostly camp .... AND we love each other to pieces and are happy happy happy"   .... but I digress.

Since 2004 I have sent out a Christmas letter tucked inside a custom designed card. My letters have become so popular that friends and relatives have actually written back. Each year I get three or four letters answering my Christmas letter. I also get thank-you emails and thank you notes from grateful recipients. Last year I dropped some people from the list and one of them wrote to me and asked to be put back on.  I believe my annual Christmas letter initiative works well because I write them with this thought in mind ..."What would I say to my friends and family if this were the last Christmas for me - or them? What if this Christmas message was my final communication. What would I say?"

This moves me to cut out all the meaningless drivel about possessions and accomplishments, write from the heart about how much each one of them means to us.  It's usually mushy, but I think the success of our Christmas letter comes from it raw honesty.

Of course, I'm actually bragging here about writing a great Christmas letter which is sort of hypocritical. I'm sure some of my family members will read this post and be aghast that I can brag when I'm so long winded.... writing a two-page, single spaced letter - and it's SO mushy (a family keeps you from getting a big head). But I've not heard from them asking to be taken off the list. 

Dan and I have large families and scores of friends we've made over the years. To some of our contacts, the Christmas card and letter is our only communication. We send out over 250 Christmas cards. I tuck my Christmas letter inside the cards of close friends and family. People have actually figured this out ... that not everybody gets a letter. We've had friends say, "Please, keep us on the A list" and others ask how they get on the "Letter List." These comments mean the world to me. To know that my message makes a difference.  What could be a more important gift?

Many have asked how I do it ... "How do you think of what to write?" ... "How do you make it interesting?"

At the risk of appearing braggadocios myself, I am daring in this post to offer 5 tips for writing a Christmas letter that will opened with great anticipation, eagerly read, appreciated and shared.

Tip 1: Keep News on Family Members to One Paragraph
This may sound odd, since the contents of most Christmas letters is 90% news of the family ... son John got into Yale this year, Cindy won the regional skating championship, Sarah is still a soccer star, grandson Bob won a scholarship, our son Billy still doesnt' talk to us and we don't know where he is - do you?, husband Jack got a new job.....Friends and family want to know what your kids are up to, where they're living, how they're doing.. but one paragraph on the whole family news is enough. ADDED NOTE: My grown children don't like when I go on and on about them in a letter. It makes them uneasy. Simple news, to the point, is enough.

Tip 2: Resist All Temptation to Brag or Appear Like You're Bragging
It's just not okay to brag on paper. Remember braggarts are bores, and you do not have the benefit of "tone of voice" or "facial expression" when writing. So don't say "We just can't believe how smart she is ... straight A's for the fifth year in a row!" Talk more about how much you love her, support her, and are glad she's eager to learn. Avoid casually mentioning how expensive your new car is or how luxurious that vacation you took was. Bragging sours the letter and taints the intention of sending love and good will.

Tip 3: Pick a Few Highlight of the Year - Then Elaborate on How You Feel or Felt About Those Events.
If your spouse got a new job, talk about it ... how does it make him or her feel? What was the most outstanding moment in your family vacation?  What was the most riveting memory of your child's wedding? What was going on in your heart when Jimmy went to the first day of kindergarten? Who have you lost this year? What comforting words can you say about the loss - or what were the most comforting words someone said to you? Did you move this year? Did you feel lonely? Make new friends?

Tip 4: Be "You" Focused Instead of "Me" Focused
Think about who you are writing to. Think about the faces of the loved ones who will read your Christmas letter. What can you say that will bring smiles to those faces? What will be interesting the those reading your letter? When will you welcome visits? Mention things in your letter that you'd want to hear from your closest friends.

Tip 5: Mention Your Sincerest Christmas Wish at the End
Christmas is a time when we remember everyone we ever loved. One recent Christmas, I was decorating my tree and becoming sentimental about the ornaments as I placed them. My ornaments could tell the story of my life. As I mentally went through my life marked by shiny baubles, I thought to myself, "What if this was my last Christmas? What would I want to tell everyone I love?" I jotted down a few thoughts and incorporated them into the sappy ending of my Christmas letter that year. I've repeated the process each subsequent year, and I believe this is the ultimate gift of the Christmas letter... my personal and sincere message of love to each loved one... the kind of thing you never think to say face to face.  Christmas is the perfect time to put these thoughts into words before it's too late, and the message of love is left unsaid.

If you're interested in reading some of my past Christmas letters, these are on line at my website.

Christmas Letter 2014
Christmas Letter 2013
Christmas Letter 2012
Christmas Letter 2011
Christmas Letter 2010
Christmas Letter 2009
Christmas Letter 2008
Christmas Letter 2007
Christmas Letter 2006

Merry Christmas everybody. 



Don't waste the money on that special Christmas stationary.  I used to do this.  It costs more money and it's a nightmare to get the layout right.  I used colored paper in the printer - a pastel green usually because it's easy on the eyes.  

Customized Cards - If you want to make your own card from one of your own photographs to match the message of your letter, consider a web service that will allow you to upload your own image and type in your own message.  Shutterfly and Vista Print are both affordable.  I'd also check with your local printer and see if he or she can match the price.


Other Christmas Posts:  
Five Christmas Traditions to Enrich Your Holidays 
Happy Christmas, Hanukkah and Festivus for the Rest of Us
The Santa Diaries - A Private Look at Christmas in St. Michaels
An Eastern Shore Solstice - Darkness is Ebbing
When People Hurt at Christmas