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Phelan: Holiday letters and what needs to be communicated

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

As Christmas approaches, my family has been receiving Christmas cards from our friends and relatives. Most of these are lovely – they often include a small snapshot from the year that shows how much the kids have grown, and the cards are an easy way to wish us a happy holiday season. We’ve even received a few Christmas letters, which always excite me, because I love to read about how relatives I’ve never met in states I’ve never been to are doing.

Our family writes our own Christmas letter. Well, as I’m the only writer in a family comprised of an accounting professor, a chief financial officer and a student studying accounting and finance, you can guess who actually writes it.

And every year, as I eagerly digest my relatives’ years, I always think about how I’m not going to write my letter. So, in the spirit of conveying your family’s accomplishments properly and without annoying any writers, I’ve put together a list of tips for writing the perfect holiday letter:

1. Keep it short. A month-by-month analysis of your family is unnecessary. I really don’t care how you and your husband spent Valentine’s Day or that nothing exciting happened in September. Try person-by-person instead. Simply ask everyone what they did this year, and give them each a paragraph. One page will suffice. A two- or three-page Christmas letter will make anyone reading it turn into a Scrooge or – gasp! – throw it away before they can read about your cat’s hospitalization.

2. Keep pets and hospitalizations to a minimum. I understand that you love your horses, but I actually don’t know them. Talk about the humans, and I can try my best to remember who exactly you are. Additionally, try to not write about medical conditions, unless they were really, really important to your year. A cancer diagnosis or a heart attack? Important, and you can mention how you appreciate your friends’ and family’s prayers. Mole removal? Cut it out.

3. Remember that this is a snapshot of what your family did during the year and your way of wishing them a merry-whatever-you-celebrate. A Christmas letter is not a way to shamelessly brag about your children. Feel free to remind us that your child won the science fair. But if the entire letter is a list of his awards, including a participation trophy for T-ball and the “Mom’s Favorite Kid Award,” I’m probably going to get rid of your letter. A few buzzwords to avoid: endangered species, Harvard Polo Team, orphans, NASA and “has taken up jogging.”

4. Try to remain positive. While I’m deeply sorry that your landlord is a lying rat and all three of your community plays have bombed this year, it makes for awkward reading. Remember, if you don’t have anything nice to say, just send a nice card and maybe a photo of your family in matching outfits.

Good luck, everyone.

• Courtney Phelan is a senior at Geneva High School. She is an outgoing and energetic young writer who likes to swim, read and participate in general teenage activities. She can be contacted at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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