If it's Christmas, then as sure as that fruit cake or jelly you got from your neighbor was re-gifted, you've received at least one newsletter.
My mother was the Erma Bombeck of Christmas newsletters. At the age of 87, she is still writing her annual missive, with help from me in the printing and stamping department. When I was a kid, the newsletter was a huge production that took weeks to finish. I can still see her sitting on the couch with her clipboard on her lap, and her little metal file box containing the names and addresses of those fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of her prosaic efforts. Each name and address was printed on a 3 X 5 index card. On the back of each card, Mom kept track of that person's incoming cards and letters, jotting down each year a card was received. I don't know what her personal cut-off point was, but if too many years went by with no contact, the recipient was no longer considered "active" and his/her index card was relegated to the back of the file box with the other miscreants. I believe at one point, Mom was sending close to 300 letters each December. These days, in the autumn of her life, she sends about 60 letters, and every year, death or Alzheimer's or just the frailties of old age will claim a card or two for the back of the file.
The newsletters were typed on her old Royal manual typewriter, a relic that my grandparents bought second-hand when their daughter went off to college. Even after I was gifted with a brand-new electric typewriter in high school, complete with a nifty erasing function, she still continued to bang out her newsletters, and every other bit of important family correspondence, on the old Royal.
Mom's newsletters were so popular that people would crib whole paragraphs for use in their own newsletters, sometimes adding a small note of apology for the theft in the margin. I would have been peeved at such blatant plagiarism, but she chose to take the high road. To her mind, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
I learned from my mother that writing a good newsletter is a balancing act. To whit:
1. Never, ever, ever send more than one page, or to paraphrase the New York Times: "All the news that fits." You can fudge on this by narrowing your margins, using a smaller font, and/or using legal-sized paper. The old Royal didn't give my mother much wiggle room, which is why she nearly always sent a legal-sized missive. I used to joke that when she sent a regular letter-sized page, it must have been a slow news year.
2. Humor is essential. Appreciate the absurdities in life.
3. It's okay to brag, it's even expected, but don't overdo it. When tooting your own horn, offset that with something self-deprecating.
4. Even if everything went wrong and nothing went right and it was a complete stinker of a year, don't be a Debbie Downer.
5. Explicit details are for instruction manuals and porn, not newsletters. (My mother didn't actually say this.)
6. Say something inspirational.
7. Reread rule #2.
Most folks overdo it with excruciating details: "We had a very nice Thanksgiving at my daughter's ranch. We had 25 attending. I made mashed potatoes and the rest of the crowd brought sweet potatoes, salad, squash casserole, string bean casserole, ribs, turkey, dressing, sausage balls, cheese ball and two dips. Of course, we had scads of desserts, pumpkin pies, pecan pie, apple pie, cupcakes, cookies and more." I wondered if the two dips mentioned were the edible kind, or if someone brought a couple of idiots to dinner.
Another gave a blow-by-blow account of several weeks visiting across the pond. Here's an excerpt: "It was our first time traveling to Europe and we loved it, of course. We stayed in a quaint hotel next to the Saint Severin, a beautiful Gothic cathedral. From our window, we could look directly onto the church's roof line and see all its spires and gargoyles - fabulous! In the distance we could just make out the Eiffel Tower, including its light shows at night. The hotel was in a great location too, on the left bank near the Notre Dame Cathedral, also magnificent. I've always loved Gothic cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings and spires. We went to a perfect little jewel of a cathedral as well, the Sainte Chapelle, with spectacular stained glass windows." This is the newsletter version of sitting through 639 slides, most of them upside down, of someone's trip and trying to act like you give a crap, while fighting the temptation to nod off.
And don't you love the ones that fall into the category of "We Spent a Butt-Load of Money, But We're Far Too Polite to Tell You How Much." We received one of these a few years ago. The butt-load of money was a massive home remodel. I remarked to my husband that it would have been easier and faster if the writer had just itemized their expenses in one neat column. It would have saved us the tedium of reading about how they agonized over giving up their old high-flow toilets for the low-flow kind.
Here's a Debbie Downer for you. It wasn't a newsletter, but a short hand-written note inside a Christmas card sent to my mother. The sender is deeply religious: "May the wonder of that first Christmas, the joy of the Father's abundant blessings, and the peace of His Son's presence be with you today and throughout the New Year. P. S. Oliver is still doing very poorly." Wait...what!? (Update: we found out later that this lady died shortly after New Year's from injuries sustained in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve. There goes another card to the back of the file.)
No. 6 is not easy for me. I am not a religious person, so including a religious message similar to the one above would border on hypocrisy and insincerity. Instead, I usually end with a little homily like this one, from 2011: "When you are caught in the holiday rush, it is easy to lose sight of things that matter: good health, self respect, being happy with what you have, the joy of friends, the love of family, compassion for others, and the ability to laugh at yourself. As you strike those “to do’s” off your list, take the time to count your blessings."
And that's as good a place as any to stop.
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