Until recently there has always been a tradition in our family based on the day the calendar designated as Thanksgiving.
While that date shifts from early to almost mid-November (we are told by presidential edict), from childhood on we always ate some form of turkey and it was a sternly enforced family rule that until Thanksgiving evening I was not allowed to play Silent Night. Over the years another tradition fell into place and between eating turkey and sorting through Christmas music, the annual Christmas letter was composed. In 2017, with a car in the repair shop, all three of those traditions were on shaky ground. In other words, readers who might expect a timely personal Christmas letter may not find it in their mailboxes. However, the tradition is so long standing that I am enjoying hearing from those who continue to write to me.
Thinking about letters to family and friends, as well as to Santa, made me wonder how long the tradition of Christmas letters had been a part of our local history. The earliest Christmas cards I have seen (some written in German rather than English), date to around 1900 and seemed to be picture post cards. My dad’s brothers had some sent to their household by relatives in Switzerland, and my mother’s older sisters had similar cards from relatives in Canada or names that appeared to be classmates at school. In those days rural schools in our area were not open in the coldest part of winter so the school year might end with a Christmas program. Both rural teachers and some of their students would then enroll in schools in nearby towns. Our relatives might spend the winter months in Langdon or Osnabrock working for “city friends” in exchange for room and board. One aunt worked for ladies who entertained frequently and kept her home to help with their social events. In later years she would claim she spent three years in fourth grade and never had enough days actual attendance to move on to a higher level. The part time attendance did give her a lifetime of stories of early days in Langdon and having mastered reading and some math, she became self-educated keeping up with the news and recording life in her diary well into her 90s.
By the time I remember letter writing at Christmas had been firmly established and appeared to be the duty of specific family members. Others might buy the cards to send or pay some of the postage, but the contact person or persons did the letter writing. Grandma and her sister, Aunt Mary, who lived close by kept all the relatives here and back in Ontario appraised of important family news. In 1900 some of the original homesteading couples went back to Ontario to visit and sent cars and letters to the children left in North Dakota. A few gifts may have come along with those letters because about that time some miniature stained glass lanterns came into the family designed to be hung on the Christmas tree. We were told these originated in Canada. To light the lantern you placed a lighted candle inside and hung it on the tree. Two survived for Rodney and me but we were not allowed to put candles in them. Along with maple sugar candy it was our heritage of Christmas in Canada.
After most of the original family correspondents died my mother became the designated letter writer. She did have a typewriter but there are memories of each card and letter being handwritten. Those received were passed on to other family members, or they would come to our house to read the ones from relatives far away.
Picture greetings began about the time of my mother’s death in the late 1950s, and by 1970 when I was back working in North Dakota her friends and distant relatives began sending Christmas mail to me. Keeping the lines of communication open has been a challenge year after year right down to the present. A friend, Ila Murie, used to ask me to type up her letter each year (possibly this was after her grandchildren were gone to college or married), which she would photocopy for her Christmas list. The year she turned 79 she told me how happy she was that she had only one more year to send out cards and letters. No, her health was not that precarious at the time, but she had been told that when you are 80 you no longer need to send cards or letters. Yes, some of the ones arriving this year are from people who are currently over 80 and yes, I am happy to hear from them.
A part of this year’s personal slowness is because aging takes its toll on what you can and cannot do. Another important factor is that there were quite a few names on my list last year that are no longer with us. Some had been ill, and others had reached older years–one aunt was ready to turn 99 and the story of her later months became a cousin’s Christmas letter this year. The truth is that if I would give a letter grade to the year 2017 it might be a D for the number of deaths of those who will be sorely missed this Christmas. Another big factor is that other friends and family members are known to have downsized to new and unknown addresses.
In the last fifty years a Christmas picture has become a popular way of sending Christmas greetings. The recipient can see how much the children have grown, tell by what the family are wearing what sports they favor and if there are palm trees or scenic views you know without words where they have spent their vacation trips. It is easier to keep the family members straight if the picture has a year and the names of all in order. As an example, my brother was an avid photographer from the time he was a teenager. I saw very few of his pictures even though he photographed the family every Christmas and at all family events. The reason is his pictures were all on slides. Years later, he proudly showed his slides to a family gathering which erupted in arguments on every side. Slides with Christmas decorations may tell the event being photographed, but other backgrounds often raise questions no one seems to be able to answer. One well remembered picnic picture of three babies (no parents on the photograph) was claimed by those viewing the pictures as cousins born in 1944, 1950 and 1955. Yes, the parents did all have children in those years, but which children were the ones pictured? Over the last years of his life, Rodney told several of us he had arranged his pictures in books by years and needed any pictures other family members might have to add to his collection. Yes, we loaned the pictures and they were not returned. Rodney died in April. When the phone rings it is often someone wanting to know what happened to his pictures. A recent phone call came from one of his children who told me the picture project was not in his effects.
Some travel a lot and the Christmas letters reflect the enjoyment of new sights. Others stay closer to home and may think their life is boring. However, I treasure the letters that come and know that many others do as well. It is not boring to learn that you are busy and enjoying life. Others may roll their eyes over a new hobby you have taken up. We rejoice over your new family members and share your sorrow over those who have been lost during the year. And if you cannot think of anything interesting in the year just past, there is also the possibility of reusing a letter from your own past. Harry Franta did that one year and it was good both times. Harry whose letters were often unique passed away in March. He had left notes for his obituary (many people do that), but probably not for a post-humous Christmas letter.
In case my letter never gets to the mail, Merry Christmas to all and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year.