Last Friday -- the end of February -- we were a month late with an annual ritual, disposing of Christmas cards. My wife had already gone through the red basket into which she had put all the cards as they came in before the holidays. Friday night she reminded me I was overdue to go through them, so I did.
Those with just the sender's name got only a glance. Those with short personal greetings were reread quickly. As for those one- or two-page family letters, I settled down to savor them fully one more time. Savor them? That's right.
Family Christmas letters (many with photos), laser-printed or photocopied, are routinely maligned by columnists and commentators every holiday season. They are dismissed as banal, self-congratulatory, weary recitations of the doings of sons, daughters and grandchildren the recipient barely knows; accounts of travels to well-trod places; and weak jokes about golf games and other retirement pursuits. They may be all those things, but it is their very ordinariness that gives them value.
No American but a hermit on a remote mountain top can avoid being swamped by a tidal wave of crises, controversies, complaints, disasters and stubborn social problems spread across the land by television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Al-Qaeda and Iraq have cranked up the decibel level. So, when a friend's family Christmas letter arrives, it is a tonic, like the fresh quality of the air on that early spring day when winter suddenly breaks and you can open the windows.
These letters record the rhythms of life: births, marriages, deaths, new jobs, old hobbies, travels. For the few minutes it takes to read each one, you are taken into the heart of that particular family to its joys, sorrows -- and its continuity.
We live in an age in which regular letter-writing has virtually disappeared. For many families, e-mail via computer has proved to be a welcome substitute. Still, there is an evanescent quality about an e-mail message. If you want to keep it, you must print it out and, even then, it is cold, black sans serif type on plain white paper. It lacks the warmth you felt when you read it on the screen from your daughter, son, mother or father, cousin or old school chum.
The annual family Christmas letter provides something more satisfying to the writer: It is the annals of the family for the record. The commitment to compose the letter means that the writer must look back over the past year and summarize all its high and low points, being sure to remember to say something positive about every member of the family.
For the reader, the result is a reminder that behind all the raucous daily life recorded by the news media, lies a very large and stable society. It includes a great many people of the type Ronald Reagan used to describe as those who "get up and go to work, pay the taxes, teach their kids right and wrong, support their church and charity and are willing to defend the nation." I like to think that most Americans fit that description -- or want to. That's why I like to hear how they're doing at the end of each year.