THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Wickersham

The drama of the ‘Dear friends’ letter

By Joan Wickersham
December 17, 2009

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’Tis the season. There are many things to love about it: the Christmas trees in the windows along Commonwealth Avenue; the whiff of evergreen from the rack of wreaths outside the supermarket; the smile you get from the Salvation Army guy when you stuff a dollar into the red kettle; the cold deep-blue twilight. There are a few things to hate: the line at the post office; the Christmas party where you won’t know anyone except the hosts, whose feelings will be hurt if you don’t show up.

And then there are some things you sort of hate and sort of love, like the annual holiday letter.

“Dear friends,’’ it begins. Already that’s a little weird, in an age when computers allow everything to be customized, and you get letters from want-to-be-elected officials that say, “Joan, I need your vote next Tuesday.’’ But nevertheless, that’s how it invariably starts. “Dear friends.’’ Then it says “Well, it’s been quite a year.’’

You curl up on the couch - preferably with a martini - to read more about what kind of a year it’s been. Depends on the family. If it’s a sporty family, you’ll find out that Bob went fishing in Tortola in February and caught bonefish or tarpon or something. With a fish that can grow to great sizes, you can bet that the weight of Bob’s biggest will be mentioned. With a fish that’s small but elusive, Bob’s total haul will be tallied. This cheerful boast will be followed by an equally cheerful bit of self-deprecation, as in, “Bob caught 57 rainbow trout in Montana, but then came down with a cold so bad that he single-handedly caused a jump in earnings for Vicks (owners of NyQuil!).’’

Who’s Bob? you wonder.

If the family is hard-driving and fiercely intellectual, the letter will not talk sports at all. It will begin disarmingly with a family vacation, to some worthwhile character-building destination - Everest, or the Ganges - which, it will claim, was “without a doubt the high point of our year.’’ But, for this powerhouse family, touting the vacation is basically just Bob’s NyQuil all over again: a bit of false modesty, a reminder that hey, we all put our pants on one leg at a time. This sort of letter buries its big guns in the second paragraph.

“Meanwhile, Anthony successfully argued a groundbreaking patent law case before the Supreme Court; Louisa received the Nobel Prize for her research on heart transplants and identical twins; and after completing her Fulbright year, Antoinette is deferring Yale Law School in order to rebuild houses in New Orleans.’’ Then, so as not to leave anyone out, this letter includes a cryptic reference to another, presumably less accomplished, or more rebellious, member of the family. “Lorraine is still crocheting,’’ it will say. Or even more tersely, and more alarmingly, “Gerald is fine.’’

Sometimes, sipping your martini, you’ll be reading through a nice, unsurprising letter - the vegetable garden, a successful knee surgery, a new puppy - and you come upon something like this: “And a heartfelt hello to everyone from Nancy and the ‘girls’ on the alpaca farm.’’ Wow. What riches in that single sentence! Why just girls? Surely a successful farm would include some boy alpacas too, wouldn’t it? Or maybe the “girls’’ are not alpacas at all, but human beings, female farmhands? But why the quotation marks? Are the “girls’’ really old? Or is there some interesting transgendered thing going on?

You hear from cousins who live in states you’ve never visited and have children and grandchildren you’ve never met. You hear from your friend Chris, who somehow every year manages to write a “Dear friends’’ letter that’s a funny, philosophical work of art. You hear from old friends of your mother’s - somehow you got on their mailing list years ago, and even though your mother has died, they still send you their letter, and you are still happy every time it arrives.

The letters, all of them, end like this: “Best wishes for a happy, healthy new year, from all the Willoughbys.’’

And you wish them the same. You wish it for all of them, everywhere: a happy, healthy new year, full of events that will be worth reporting next December.

Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index.’’ Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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