Once again, the holidays are upon us. Cloying eggnog lattes, insanely crowded stores, stressful family reunions… the most wonderful time of the year, right?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the holidays — the gatherings, the special food, the giving of gifts. I love Christmas carols, and gingerbread houses, and the fugly sweaters you normally wouldn’t be caught dead in. But there’s always a disconnect between the amount of stress a parent feels this time of year and the perfect, blissful family experience you want to create. It’s like being a wedding planner, only everyone in your family is getting married at the same time.
For me, part of the stress comes from the tidal wave of holiday cards that flood my mailbox this time of year. (By the way, why is the picture on the front usually just the kids? Is that the parents’ way of explaining why they’ve been so out of touch? “Sorry, we would have written sooner, but we were busy breeding and raising these here critters.”) The worst are the cards stuffed with multi-page letters recounting the fabulous achievements and family adventures of the past year. Meanwhile, I’m hopelessly late on my shopping, planning Christmas dinner, frantically working out travel and housing arrangements and tearing my hair out by the fistful. Do I really need reminders that my parental inadequacy extends throughout the year?
Why didn’t my family go skiing in the Alps, or rock climbing in Utah, or hang-gliding in Patagonia? Why aren’t my kids on the Olympic swim team, modeling for Benetton, or doing earthquake relief in Afghanistan at age 12? I have enough trouble just getting everyone out the door in the morning, and putting something that resembles dinner on the table at night.
Holiday letters are the old-school equivalent of Facebook pages. They’re selectively edited, carefully constructed versions of lives, designed to put them in the best possible artificial light. And much like social media, they invite us to compare our own lives to half-truths and fabrications, beside which we come up short.
As a public service, I’ve created an annotated version of a typical holiday letter (with names and details changed to protect both breeders and critters) that provides a more complete understanding of one family’s past year.
Dear Family and Friends,
It’s been an exciting, stimulating year at the Cuthbert household, filled with many new adventures. (Nothing went as planned. It was chaos. I’m exhausted.) Now we’re looking forward to a joyful holiday season with our family, and a peaceful start to the New Year. (My in-laws are visiting. Lord help me. But they leave the day after Christmas, thank God.)
Bobby started fourth grade at a new school this fall, and he’s been making lots of new friends. (He got kicked out of his old school after he and his hoodlum buddies phoned in a bomb scare to get out of a math test.) He’s also started playing soccer, and he loves it! (We threatened to take away his Xbox if he didn’t sign up for a sport.) But his first love, as always, is science, especially chemistry and biology. (He pulls the wings off flies, and does “experiments” involving various household adhesives and our cat.)
Ashley is already a freshman in high school — she has grown into a young woman so fast! (Last week, George found her in the alley out back with a boy who had a full mustache and a neck tattoo. She introduced him as “Turbo.”) As always, she’s an excellent student. Her writing, in particular is full of passion and emotion. (Okay, I admit it. I read her diary. She called me a Nazi in pantyhose. And she called Turbo her “Man-cake.” I cried for two days.) Next summer, she’s planning to go on a humanitarian mission to Chiapas, Mexico. (Whether she likes it or not. She’s not gonna be home alone with Turbo, that’s for sure.)
George’s company is undergoing a major restructuring, and he’s excited about the new direction his career has taken. (His new boss, who is 20 years younger than George, wears skinny jeans and rides a “fixie” to work. Apparently, that’s some kind of bicycle.) When he’s not working, he loves to spend time outdoors (asleep in the hammock), or down in his workshop (asleep on a cot).
I’m still working hard at getting my new business off the ground. (Jewelry made from human hair isn’t catching on the way I thought it would.) But my real passion is just being at home, caring for my beautiful family. (I swear, if I wasn’t here they would all die of starvation and dirty underwear.)
Here’s a modest proposal. This year, when we get an urge to type up a three-page family letter and send it off to people we hardly know, let’s consider an alternative. Call up someone you really care about, but haven’t heard from for a while, and ask them how they’re doing. Laugh a little. Commiserate a little. Show them who you really are, in all your messy, imperfect glory. That’s a gift anyone would love.
Jeff Lee sings Jingle Bells off-key, drinks store-bought eggnog, and wears fugly sweaters in Seattle.