Bring Back the Written Word This Holiday Season

Last weekend, my husband and I ventured down to Old Colorado City to do some Christmas shopping for our family. We stumbled into a British novelty shop on the edge of the shopping district — right in the middle of High Tea. (For the sake of accuracy, the event we witnessed was actually an afternoon tea — not a “high tea” in the historical sense, which would have been a heavier meal eaten by the working class.)

No. The tea I’m referring to was the one you’re thinking of: ladies in funny hats pouring tea around tiered trays of finger sandwiches and scones.

I could not believe that something like this was still going on in the back of a little tourist shop in Colorado — or that they were nearly always booked around the Christmas season.

People cannot get enough of it. (We made a reservation.) And why not? It’s a welcome touch of old-timey civility in our rushed, uncouth modern world.

It’s my hope that letter writing will experience a similar resurgence. In the same way that this British pastime of afternoon tea slows us down, brings back good manners, and offers a chance to socialize, letter writing is a departure from our hurried emails and brusque text messages and can reconnect us with friends who live far away.

I love writing and receiving real letters. It’s hard to say which I enjoy more — the writing or the receiving. I love good paper, beautiful cards, stamps, envelopes, and pens. I love clacking away on my manual typewriter from the 1940s and the smell of the onionskin paper my husband found on eBay. (To me, a typewritten letter is nearly as personal as a handwritten one because of the imperfections and typos that occur. I do not fix these in my letters.)

When I go to the post office, I make them pull out all their stamps. I’ll buy the strange ones — commemorative stamps featuring the solar eclipse, National Parks, Mexican food — whatever they have in stock. I stick on pretty address labels that charitable organizations won’t stop sending me. I’ll fold the paper, lick the envelope.

It’s my deepest wish that this could somehow catch on — this sacred act of letter writing. It’s thoughtful. It’s romantic. And it’s analog.

While I don’t hold high hopes, the one time of year when I do think this is possible is the holiday season. Even if you don’t normally send letters or cards, Christmas is a time when many people think about the loved ones with whom they wish to reconnect. They dig out family snapshots, buy stamps, and search for people’s addresses.

This year, instead of going on Shutterfly or Minted to create postcards with holiday messages superimposed over family photos, why not do it the old-fashioned way? You could even make it a tribute to the 1990s and type out a family letter on the computer. It still offers a personal touch.

Here’s what I did.

I made a list of my faraway friends — the people whom I seldom get to talk to but really value as friends. (For me, this was just 11 people.) I typed up a letter on my typewriter detailing what’s been happening in my life, what I’ve been thinking about, struggling with, etc. It had the feel of an open letter, though it was highly personal.

Then I included a question to each friend. This part was an impulsive add-on, but I think it really made the letter special because it called out each person individually. (Mind you, they don’t all know each other, but some of them do — or they’ve heard me mention a friend in passing.) This served the dual purpose of making each friend feel that I was addressing him or her personally and showed recipients how exclusive this letter really was. It wasn’t going out to 50 people — just the 11 that I had chosen.

Once the letter was finished, I signed it, copied it, and bought a box of Christmas cards at the store. I handwrote a brief personal message in each card and then tucked a copy of my longer “open letter” into each one. I’ll write a few more cards without an open letter to family members whom I see regularly.

You could adapt this method to fit your Christmas card list and the amount of time you want to commit. You could handwrite the open letter and then copy it for a personal retro touch or type it on the computer. You could choose to do only an open letter (the fastest) or just handwrite a brief card to a short list of people.

The open letter is perfect when you have a large, geographically dispersed family, and it’s fun when people all know each other. The handwritten card is nice when you have a lot of older recipients who may get forgotten around the holidays or just a few close friends.

No matter what you choose, I think it’s a delightfully personal way to reconnect with loved ones who live far away and update them on what’s going on in your life. I’m hoping that some of my friends will write back in the New Year. (I’m already pen pals with one of them.)

What about you? Are you sending out holiday cards this year? Will you handwrite them, type them, or order them?

Photo by Debby Hudson

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