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Is it a family update or is it just bragging? (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Is it a family update or is it just bragging? (Image Design: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 25, 2023

The enduring fascination of the humblebraggy Christmas letter 

Is it a family update or is it just bragging? (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Is it a family update or is it just bragging? (Image Design: Archi Banal)

They’re an opportunity to boast that some proud parents take way too far, but the relentlessly upbeat annual family letter is a festive tradition that Gemma Bowker-Wright can’t help but cherish.

My brother went on an exchange to the US when he was 15. He played American football. Three members of his team were called Chad. Cheerleading was a legitimate sport at his Minnesota high school (as was cake decorating). The lunch options were pizza, burgers or hot dogs. He went to the prom with a girl called Brittany. A year later he returned home, tanned and taller, with a suitcase of photographs and trophies that lined his dresser for months, before slowly becoming replaced with other relics – books, posters, a basketball. And then he left home. 

For years afterwards the host families he had stayed with continued to send us Christmas letters. These would arrive well before Christmas and contain a Christmas card, a photo of the family together, smiling toothy smiles, and a long letter detailing each family member’s achievements for the last 12 months. The letters were showy and strangely detailed. Jennifer has graduated her second year of college with straight A’s. Claire has achieved grade seven on the cello, and won a blue ribbon in the Minnesota State Dog Obedience Competition with Sammy (whose list of achievements is also included). Aunt Marie has recovered well from her hip surgery. The snow was particularly bad on the highway this year. Vivian is landscaping the rose garden.

There was a lot to say. Sometimes there were bullet points. 

I developed a quiet fascination with these letters. The overstatement of it all. The detail. The boldness. The loudness. The photos of everyone, grinning so widely, so openly. Glossy. Look at me! Welcome to my life! Welcome to all of my life. 

What was underneath it? I wondered. What goes on behind the camera, or between the lines? What happens out of focus? 

Secretly, I wanted that glossiness. That shine. I wanted to believe in it. I wanted to believe life could be so pretty, so contained. A bullet-pointed year. Full of beautiful and pointless detail. How wholesome. How tidy. 

Christmas decorations, where they should be, on a tree. (Photo: Getty Images)

When I was little we had a box for our Christmas decorations. On the cover of the box was a family gathered around a lighted Christmas tree. The family was comically wholesome. They were grinning madly. It was the 1990s. The mother and daughter had matching blunt fringes. The father and son had matching red and green sweaters. Both kids held perfectly wrapped box-shaped presents. Behind them the Christmas tree glittered and glowed – warm, all-encompassing. 

Who are they? I wanted to know. Were they really that happy? Was the girl’s fringe really that straight?

What was their life like outside the Christmas tree glow? Did they fight? Fart? I wanted to know them. A little bit of me wanted to be them. 

“What are our greatest achievements this year?”, I ask my kids. 

They look at me, blankly. 

My youngest sucks his thumb. 

I try again: “What have we done this year that was special? Memorable? What was good about this year?”

“I liked that time the digger crashed on our street,” says my youngest. “And the time we saw a fire truck come to put out a fire. Except there wasn’t a fire so they just got out and stood around.”

My oldest has something of a list. He grew tomatoes. He can now eat three Weet-bix in one go.  

Another highlight of our year was the spaceship my kids drew. In Vivid. On the wall. It looks like a penis. 

We don’t receive the host families’ Christmas letters any more. I miss them, these strangers I never met yet know a surprising number of things about. I wonder about them. Did Jennifer finish college? Does Claire still go to obedience school with Sammy? Did Aunt Marie have the other hip done?

It isn’t such a big tradition in New Zealand, the Christmas letter. But, like Halloween and Covid, it’s catchy. I have friends and relatives who send them, often in email form. Or via WhatsApp. There’s also the good old Facebook end of year brag. Little Johnny is doing so well in karate. Alice is acing ballet. Riley got distinction in her flute exam.  

It’s not the same. There’s a blandness to the New Zealand version. A horn-blowing without the small details, the finer points that make it beautifully human: the new lemon tree in the garden; the quilt-making class; that brilliant sunset in July. The letters don’t feel all encompassing. They don’t make you part of the family. Like a giant Christmas hug. 

What would I put in my Christmas letter? We survived the year, no one died. A photo of a phallic spaceship on the wall.  

I miss, too, those perfect-looking family photos. The all-American snapshots with the slight mystery. The gloss. Christmas lights twinkling in the background. Those pictures with everyone smiling white-tooth smiles. Those impossible teeth, like a row of pearls gleaming in the sun. 

Keep going!