This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Coveted Spencer Family Christmas Newsletter. The title is obviously a joke. As a genre, Christmas newsletters are the laxatives of literature. They move you in ways that provide more relief than enjoyment.
You want to know what your far-flung friends and family are up to. You especially want to know if they are OK. So you wade through lists of achievements and afflictions that often read like instructions for assembling an internal combustion engine. And you inflict those same lists on the ones you love.
I began writing the Coveted Spencer Family Christmas Newsletter in 1983. My wife, kids and I had left our home state of Virginia for the suburbs of Chicago. I wanted to let every one know we had moved. But frankly, I also wanted to brag about my two sons. Pride drives most Christmas newsletters. You just need to accept that. I try to veil my vanity. Alas, the my-kids-are-great theme shows through like the results of a wet T-shirt contest. Indeed, my early holiday missives were so saccharin and upbeat that a friend once wrote and mailed a parody of the Coveted Spencer Family Christmas Newsletter. It detailed his kids’ failures in the preceding year. In my defense, I mute my horn-tooting with humor.
“Cody is four and in nursery school,” I wrote back in 1985. “Before each meal we recite the blessing his teachers taught him. It’s the length of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but has a nice rhyme scheme.”
Or this, from 1989: “Jesse, now 12 and in seventh grade, is learning ballroom dancing at a local cotillion. His mother is so proud. The first night he went, she peeked in the window and noted to a perfect stranger, ‘Would you look at my son. He’s dancing with a girl in an off-the-shoulder evening gown and teased hair. She looks like she’s 32. Why she even has boobs.’”
“‘That’s my daughter,’ the stranger replied.”
In 1991, it was a tribute to public education: “We got our kids into a great school system. Cody has already taken advantage of the excellent sex education to learn about female anatomy—‘You know, the ovaries and the Eucharist.’”
By 2006, the punch lines had given way to a new generation—my then-three-year-old granddaughter, Piper: “During the prayer at a service in her maternal uncle’s church, Princess Piper loudly admonished parishioners, ‘Don’t pick your nose,’ then broke into the SpongeBob theme.”
Of course, it isn’t always kids say the darndest things. As the years have passed, so have loved ones. I try to make respectful, but short work of losses and tragedies. After all, ’tis the season to be jolly.
Finally, however, the bottom line of all Christmas newsletters is information.
Reading past correspondence as I prepare to write the silver anniversary issue, a sense of social anthropology overtakes me. These newsletters reflect more than the movements of time and people. However they might bore or frustrate, they preserve cultural tidbits that probably would otherwise be lost.
You remember the standard stuff—the science projects, the sports teams, the family vacations. But where else are you going to find the actual words from the beginning of a fifth-grader’s sci-fi novel or a high school freshman’s attempt at a Sam Spade-like private-eye potboiler?
“I picked up her purse and inhaled her perfume,” Jesse wrote as a ninth-grader. “It was as intoxicating as good Bourbon, but not as expensive.”
I live in Denver now. My son Cody lives in Los Angeles, a 15-minute drive from the Pacific. My son Jesse, his wife and daughter live in Poquoson, Virginia, a 45-minute drive from the Atlantic. Besides commutes to the coasts, most of what I have now are memories. At this moment, a stack of those memories lies beside me in the form of the Spencer Family Christmas Newsletter. The oldest ones are, like me, starting to fade and wrinkle. But the truth is this:
I covet every one.
Spencer’s 5 Christmas Newsletter Writing Tips:
1. Keep it short. Never more than a page with short sentences and
2. Avoid laundry lists.
Use anecdotes instead.
3. Never take yourself or your family too seriously.
4. Keep the bad
5. Find an ending that leaves ’em laughing.