How to write a holiday letter people will actually want to read

This year, I threatened to give up the Christmas letter.

Just can't wait to read those letters

Just can't wait to read those letters

“You can’t do that!” my husband shouted. You would have thought I’d suggested we give up our Sunday morning bacon tradition.

“Everyone loves your Christmas letter,” he pleaded.

“No one loves Christmas letters. We all write them because we think we should write them, and we read them because we think we should read them, but everyone really hates them-just hates them. They are a waste of time and a waste of postage. None of us really care about each other’s vacations, medical problems, and honor students. No one, at least I don’t.”

He hung his head and walked away.

Then in a blog last week, I mentioned that I planned to forgo my annual letter and my family pitched a fit. “I love your letter,” Mom told me. “My holiday won’t be the same without it.”

Little Bro asked incredulously, “You’re not doing a letter this year? Are you sure?”

And even Judy, Mom’s lifetime best friend, emailed to say that she would really miss reading my letter, too.

It was a “Keep Alisa Writing Her Letter Intervention” if I ever heard of one. So tonight I sat down at my computer and said, “Oh all right. I’ll write the stupid letter.”

About 15 minutes later I had a letter, a really great letter, one that I knew my family and friends would love to read. It occurred to me that I might conceivably have a Holiday Letter Writing Gift. I thought I would pass on my tips to the rest of you, so you, too, can write a holiday letter than people will actually want to read.

To do so, you need to follow a few holiday letter-writing rules.

Holiday Letter Writing Rule #1: You must mention everyone in your household at least once. If you do not, someone is likely to feel like an afterthought and hold a grudge for the next 365 days.

Holiday Letter Writing Rule #2:
Leave out all run-of-the-mill details, such as:

  • “My kid is still an honor student.” People read that sort of thing and think one thing and one thing only, “Who cares about your kid. My kid is smart too, I’ll have you know!”
  • “My back still hurts. It hurt last year, too. So do my knees.”
  • “It rained some this year. We had a few sunny days, too.”
  • “My the year went by so quickly. It always does.”
  • “Not much happened this year.”
  • “Everything is pretty much the same as it was last year, when we told you that it was pretty much the same as the year before that.”
  • “We went to Hawaii. We liked it. You should try it.”

Holiday Letter Writing Rule #3: Do not use exclamation points unless you are really and truly excited. This is just a personal pet peeve of mine. It’s right up there with people writing, “LOL!” when they are really barely smiling.

Now, for what you should put IN your letter.

Use one of the following letter-writing templates.

Holiday Letter Template #1: The story. What was the most interesting thing that happened to you this year? Think over your entire year. What is the funniest, most touching, or most poignant story you can tell from your year? Tell that one story and leave every single other detail out of it, because the other details don’t matter-not even to your mother. Keep in mind that the story must fulfill letter writing rule #1 and include every single person in your household.

To tell the story, start with the action. “I found myself sitting inside of the MRI machine. I didn’t know how I’d gotten there.” No one is going to stop reading after that line. Here’s another, “Julie and I were walking through our neighborhood when a naked man approached us and asked to borrow our clothes.” Again, you have your reader’s full attention. From there, just tell the story one line at a time. When you get to the end, stop. It’s okay to end it with, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” but don’t even think about starting it with such a line. Start your letter with “We wish you and yours a happy holidays” and you’ll lose more than half of your audience. Trust me on this one. I stop at that line every single time.

Holiday Letter Template #2: The lesson. If you could boil your entire year down into one word, what would that one word be? Scary? Fulfilling? Enriching? Crazy? Come up with the word. Then give us a series of bullet points about why your year was that word. See the Borings and Not So Borings with Template #3 for bullet writing tips.

Holiday Letter Template #3: The update. This is the letter most people write poorly. Tell us something new about every member in the household. Give every household member-including the dog-one bullet point.

Here’s the challenge: do it in an interesting way. To help you in this quest, I’ve given you some BORINGS and NOT SO BORINGS below.

BORING: Our daughter is 4. Wow, she’s growing so fast. We really can’t believe how fast the time goes. Soon she will be five.

Kaarina turned 4. The newer, older her is a font of information. Any given day, we have conversations like this:


“Yes, dear.”

“Did you know the Pacific Ocean is the biggest ocean ever?”

“No, honey, I did not know that. How do you know that?”

“I don’t know. I just do.”


“Yes dear.”

“Do you know that 1 plus 1 equals 2?”

“Well, yes, I do in fact know that. Isn’t it nice when your mommy actually knows something?”

“Uh huh.”

“Mommy, do you know what reindeer eat?”

“No, honey, I don’t. What do you think they eat?”

“I think they eat apples.”

“That sounds good. I think they might eat apples, too. I suppose we should research this before Christmas, though, just to be sure.”


“Yes, dear.”

“What’s research?”

“It’s something you do on the Internet when you don’t know something but you wish you did.”


She also loves to tell knock-knock jokes, but she likes to make them up, as in, “Knock-Knock. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Banana head!” That one in particular generates lots of laughter.

She’s her most endearing when she absorbs a phrase and repeats it in her own language. For instance, one day I was snuggling with her and she said, “Mommy, we’re 10 peas in a pot.”

Yes, indeed we are.

BORING: Alisa is still a freelance writer, doing the same thing she always does every year.

NOT SO BORING: Alisa broke all of her past writing records and ghosted and co-authored 4 diet and fitness books, only two of which she’s going to tell you about. The 90 Second Fitness Solution is a must-have for anyone who would like to look as if she exercises but has no intention of actually doing so. The Skinny will hit a bookstore near you in March. Women’s Day, Family Circle and Fitness magazines have already committed to excerpting or profiling the book. It’s a diet plan for people who want to lose weight but hate to feel hungry.

BORING: We went to St. Kitts. It’s hot there. It was sunny, too. We liked it. You should go.

Mark and Alisa finally took the Babymoon they had planned and canceled in 2001 and 2003, dropping their fine daughter off with Grandma and Grandma Bauman for a week while they flew to St. Kitts to taste rum drinks, snorkel, hike, sleep, and do those things that we all know parents do but we all work hard at pretending never happen.

We were blessed to visit Mark’s side of the family early in the year, as we do every year. They were the same as they are every year, and the trip was uneventful.

: The Emmaus Bowman clan visited the Florida Bowman clan in February. The highlight of the trip occurred when Mark rode his bike in the Florida heat too many days in a row, developed an overuse injury in his upper back and decided that he was having a heart attack. Because his electrolytes were a bit off, the hospital kept him overnight. We’re still paying off the doctors there, but Mark says it was the best night of his life. Kaarina says Disney World was fun, too, especially when she got to meet the red Power Ranger in person.

Is it making sense? Try it, and you, too, can write a letter that your family and friends will not only want to read, but will want to frame.

Want to share your holiday writing tips? Want to share a few lines from the most boring holiday letters you’ve received this year? How about something from one of the best? Leave a comment.

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Should holiday letters be outlawed?

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10 comments… add one

  • Gerald Weber December 21, 2008, 8:12 pm

    Holiday Letter Writing Rule #3:

    This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine was using all the exclamation points. ha ha ha

    I would definitely need one of these templates, as I’m not much of a holiday letter writer type of person.

    Thanks for the info. =)

  • Sandra Foyt December 21, 2008, 8:14 pm

    I also tried to skip out on the annual tradition of a holiday card, but it was an online friend who convinced me otherwise.

    No one warns you that when you start the holiday card tradition, you’re in it for life. (LOL! Sorry, couldn’t resist!!!)

  • Razeno December 21, 2008, 8:26 pm

    Interesting and useful too. Can I find this article in Esperanto?

  • Alex @ EsculonSays December 21, 2008, 9:43 pm

    Maybe I’ll try that one year…right now I can barely commit to sending out one liner Christmas cards. And yes, I’m totally guilty of overusing exclamation marks and I always LOL when I’m barely smiling…it’s too hard to show emotion in writing!! =)

  • admin December 21, 2008, 10:15 pm

    Alex–I make an exception for you because you are so cute. When you overuse the exclamation points, you come off as sweet and not overly perky.

  • Robert Erbeau December 21, 2008, 11:34 pm

    Not only do I suggest skipping the letter, but I would like to skip the holidays completely. Enough already. Why not have a big gift giving orgy in the summer when it’s easier to get around and more fun to party? Then the Christians can have their holiday back, and the rest of us can just have a good time without the hassle. And we could dump all the trappings like the tree and Santa and the lights on the houses. How about ramping up the 4th of July for example?

  • admin December 22, 2008, 10:34 am

    For the record, I thought about outlawing the holidays a few days ago, especially when an ice storm obliterated our chances of shopping without our daughter present. Now I’m going to have to shop during the workday, as if I didn’t already have enough work to do during the work day. My own fault for waiting this long.

    Anyway this morning my daughter told me that Santa had a magic snowball that allowed him to tell whether or not kids were naughty or nice. I can kind of see how the magic snowball might give me more status as the person in charge around here, so the holidays are growing on me.

  • Marilyn Bauman December 22, 2008, 11:59 am

    My vote goes to Robert Erbeau’s idea: Christmas in July. I feel better, the sun shines, and it is warm. I might even want to get those gifts and celebrate the birth of that special baby.

    On the other hand, I will list here the worst and the best from my holiday letters so far.

    Worst: “Wishing everything good for you. I’ve developed problems with my legs. I’m going to a doctor who says he can help. We will see.”

    Best: “Joy to the World and Peace on Earth?” (Notice the question mark. This one did make me laugh out loud and I just realized that is what LOL means).

    As Sandra Foyt says, no one tells you that once you start this Christmas letter tradition you MUST keep doing it. In my case, I tried to skip a year, and everyone thought I had died.

    So if you ever want to stop, you must send out a notice that you are in sound mind and body but will no longer be sending cards or a letter. That might work.

  • Lynn December 22, 2008, 5:56 pm

    I think you could start a great side business writing INTERESTING and well-written Christmas letters.

  • Eve December 31, 2008, 4:33 pm

    Love it…Or should I say LOVE IT!!! “LOL!” (no, seriously…I really did have a big cheesy grin on my face-almost embarrassing)
    Happy Holidays!


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