Monday, December 13, 2010

The Art of the Well-Scrubbed Christmas Letter

We’ve all received them. Little Ginny won the spelling bee, Fred made the dean’s list, Dad got a big bonus, and Mom manages to cook gourmet, Martha Stewart-esque meals every night while working at an important job and volunteering in the kids’ classrooms several times a week. Even the dog’s accomplishments are listed – Rover just loves his daily 10-mile runs with mom or dad and even saved one of the kids from choking. The English rose garden in the yard might be mentioned. Some photos of the family vacation to Hawaii are included in the montage - along with a photo of the brand new car.

Every time I read such a token, cliché Christmas letter, I wonder, naturally, what’s being omitted. Based on my experience in ministry and with my own family (immediate and extended), I know that there are lots and lots of things people don’t want to write about in the Christmas letter.

What we don’t read in most Christmas letters is that (note, these are generic examples – check my Christmas letter for the real Howerton ones - although the photo posted is real). Johnny just finished his second rehab program, or that Mom suspects that Dad is a workaholic or addicted to pornography. No one mentions that Mom had an affair or that grandma is an alcoholic or that Aunt Margaret’s breast cancer is causing them to doubt their faith. We don’t read that parents are exhausted and in need of a break or that the family is depending on the local Food Bank for survival. We don’t read that anyone in the family is hurting or struggling or grieving. Instead, we see photos of families at their best - smiling, matching, and very put together. Readers are meant to envy how well the Joneses are doing.

I must confess, I’ve written this “all too put together” Christmas letter myself– sans the bragging about the spelling bee and dog (if you’ve smelled my dog, you’ll know there’s no way to brag about him.) In years past, I have definitely sent out a scrubbed clean recap of a year in Howerton family life. Most years, I’ve just sent a card and a photo, not knowing how to be honest and authentic without scaring the hell out of people. In a stark rejection of the Great Christmas Letter Expectation, I haven’t sent anything out for the last two years.

What’s incredibly ironic about the modern state of the Christmas Letter is that the story of Jesus’ birth, the very reason for the holiday, is not a very put together story. I’m pretty sure that Mary’s parents wouldn’t have sent out a Christmas card with a caption that read, “Our 14 year old magically got pregnant and then gave birth near farm animals! Merry Christmas!”

The whole point of Jesus’ birth is that messiness is redeemable – that there is healing and hope, that you DON’T have to have it all together, that you can come as you are. Honestly, in Jesus' economy, messiness wins.

It's when we think we have it all together that we're in trouble.


  1. Love the reality of this... we are all a mess, and all of the fakeness can celebrate in denial this year, but I am all about letting my messiness hang out :)

  2. "Our 14 yr old magically got pregnant..." - Love it!

    Chistmas LETTER??? I'm doing good just to get a card in the mail these days. I don't have time to think of something witty, interesting and grammatically correct.

    I totally know what you mean though. There are a couple of letters that we get every year that leaves me feeling like our family is a bunch of losers. I know I've sent out my fair share of those letters though.

  3. This is such a great post. I love getting Christmas letters and especially pictures, but it is a shame that we can't be more authentic. Maybe that's why I blog, so I can write truthfully about life as the mom of a large adoptive family. It's not always pretty, but I pray it is filled with hope and redemption. It helps to have friends who I can be real with too - including you. BTW, I love the photo of your kids!


  4. Lisa, Have I told you how incredibly thankful I am for you?

    By the way, can you email me your address? ;)

  5. Amen.

    One year my mom decided she had had enough of all the bragging that went on in the newsletters, so she wrote about all of the average things we did that year. Like my sister (3 at the time) spending most of her time pretending to be a cat and licking people. She closed it with "maybe our children will be very successful or maybe they will be wonderfully average."

  6. I too have been guilty of the "perfect family" Christmas letter, although I have to admit I enjoy when people do send a letter with their card, perfect or not. It's hard to find a balance between updating people on our lives without oversharing or making it sound like everything's peachy.

    I am completely avoiding the whole thing this year.

  7. Please forgive me I don't mean to be harsh. It is hard to hear a gentle tone and a pleasant voice when reading a post but if you could see my face you would see I am not lashing out just stating what I think. . . You wouldn't tell the gory details of your life to every person you meet in daily life so why would you tell them in your Christmas letter? Yes Jesus is the one who redeems us from all bad things that happen in our lives but it is a blessing to point out the blessings that God has given to us because His word says that He inhabits our praises. That is He lives in our praises. The things you mention would only be given over to prayer with those closest to you.
    While Mary's parents would not have told that their daughter was pregnant and unmarried if they too had faith in the Messiah they would have said the King is coming and God through the Holy Spirit has chosen our humble daughter to give birth to Him. I love the Christmas letter I get and if there is something to pray about there is usually a handwritten note at the bottom that explains what prayer is needed. I don't think reader are meant to envy the people writing but just to share in the few joys this life can bring. Why dwell on the negative especially at this wonderful time of year. Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT) And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

  8. Amen to that. You are so right. I write with similar thoughts on my blog all the time. Jesus came BECAUSE we were so messy, not despite it. Thanks for sharing...visited from Rage Against the Minivan's link :)

  9. That was great! Thanks. Call me an angst-filled navel-gazing gen-xer, but I'd much rather read something honest, genuine, and REAL than something that sounds impressive but is only a part of the picture. It's kind of like taking joy in our weaknesses, knowing that we are depending on God to meet us in THOSE places in the strongest, most life-changing ways.

    Garrison Keilor wrote a very funny and similar commentary that my wife and I still remember and crack up about as far as keeping it real. First and third paragraphs are my favorite, here it is:

  10. I have to say that I agree with Sue a little bit. I don't understand why Christmas letters seem to have such a bad connotation. I've always enjoyed getting christmas letters and see them not as cleaned up bragging or keeping up with the Jones' but as an attempt to give glory to God for the ways He has blessed them throughout the year. Do we all have messiness in our lives? Yes, some more than others. But I truly doubt anyone would like to receive a christmas letter from me, detailing the death of my husband last year, the emptiness this year has brought our family or the fact that I came down with pneumonia literally on the anniversary of my husband's death from pneumonia, scaring my young children. I think they'd rather see that we have found what small joys we could from this year and that we are slowly moving forward. And I still think Christmas letters beat a card with only a signature any day.

  11. Sue,

    I'm definitely not saying that Christmas letters shouldn't share high points and praises. I'm just pointing out that when praises are actually pretending, there's a soul problem.

    I'm not advocating that you share every horrible thing and thought from the past year. The Christmas letter becomes an issue for me when its intent is to paint a false portrait.

    If, when you write your Christmas letter, your aim is to bless others and not incite jealousy, then I have no complaints. I'm a fan of living authentically - even in the token Christmas letter. I love lives and letters that point to God's redeeming grace, not to our own accomplishments.

  12. Catherine,

    Wow - you have had one rough year. I'm tearing up reading your comment. Thanks for sharing that - thanks for that honesty and authenticity. Know that I'm praying for you and your kiddos....

  13. This was just what I needed to be reminded of today. Thank you.

  14. "hey, we're the stookey's. we lost two babies this year and both of our grandpa's passed away. merry christmas!"


    love you!


  15. The church and life is a better place with "real/broken/redeemed" women like you Jodie!!! thanks for writing this!

    I hope the Howerton's Christmas is genuinely "merry" and blessed with peace and love :)

  16. thank you so much for sharing your heart. i couldn't agree more!

    can i share this next week on my blog? linking to you.
    takeheartblog @

  17. Danielle! Go for it! Thanks for the link!

  18. Thanks Jodie...this was very real and got me thinking.

  19. Thanks Jodie . . . I hope people take the time to read all the way down to your first response in the comments, because I think THAT hit the nail right on the head.

  20. stumbled on your blog. loved this post. i'm going to link to it!

  21. Hi! I'm Julie. I found you from Lisa's blog.

    I love this post. So true.

    The Sunday School teacher in me always sends a lesson in the Christmas letter (usually something we are learning in our lives) and I try to be as real as possible, while honoring my family members. I always try to consider how my friends that are hurting will receive this letter. That helps me tone down the sunshine and roses a bit.


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