December 8, 2019 – A View from the Rectory Window

Shedd, Oregon. December 25, 1948. “Dear Friends,” wrote Marie Bussard, a homesick mother of three. “Now that Christmas is here again… we find that there is too much news to fit into a note on each card. We have borrowed this idea of a Christmas News Letter from our friends the Chambers and the Danns.”

So they’re the ones to blame.

Without realizing it, Bussard was among the pioneers of a new practice that spread across the postwar landscape in the 1950s and ’60s, as more people moved away from their hometowns. A year-end ritual we have learned to love and hate simultaneously, the holiday newsletter has always been Americanish—efficient, egalitarian and increasingly secular. It got a big boost in the 1960s when photocopiers made rapid reproduction widely available and the U.S. Postal Service brought out the first-class Christmas stamp, encouraging more people to send holiday greetings. In the stamp’s debut year, 1962, post offices sold 1 billion, at 4 cents each.

The emphasis of these Christmas Newsletters, of course, is on the positive, and the great American talent for selfpromotion is much in evidence. One study of holiday newsletters found that the leading topic was travel experiences. Weather was big. Also near the top: Mom and Dad’s professional accomplishments, the kids’ scholastic achievements and the family’s material possessions. At the bottom of the list were personal and work problems. Analyzing about a half-century of newsletters, Ann Burnett of North Dakota State University saw an increase in the use of words such as “hectic,” “whirlwind” and “crazy.” Through their annual holiday letters, she says, people were “competing about being busy.”

The traditional Christmas card was considered a vulgar time-saver when it was first introduced in the 1840s, so perhaps it’s no wonder that almost as soon as newsletters appeared, they too became a punchline. Ann Landers, in her syndicated advice column, published complaints about the so-called “brag rags,” such as one first printed in 1968 asking why “normally intelligent people seem to take leave of their senses at Christmas.” Umbrage, of course, was taken. “How can you, in good conscience, encourage people to not share their happy news in holiday letters?” chided Pam Johnson, the founder of the Secret Society of Happy People. “As culture wars go, this was pretty tame, but an Emily Post Institute survey showed that Americans were sharply divided, with 53 percent approving of the holiday letter and 47 percent hating it.

I debated. The internet might have put an end to this oddly fascinating custom. Who needs a once-a-year family fun marketing report when Facebook and Instagram can update friends and strangers every minute?

But in the end, I couldn’t help myself. Please let me brag about my family in the next few pages of this bulletin (full bulletin online can be seen at
http://saintmaxkolbe.com/download/2012/12082019-StMaximilianKolbe-1.pdf ).

Happy Advent,

Father Pete