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Prompted By Holiday Letters

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My last holiday letter, 2006

I don’t recall my parents sending or receiving holiday letters. If they ever did receive any, they certainly didn’t display them anywhere. And since everyone they knew was nearby, and a regular part of their daily lives, even if someone sent a holiday card, there would have been no need to include a letter giving updates on family happenings, because they were already known.

Hope you enjoy our second holiday letter, with a montage of photos including our beloved 14-year-old cats, Hillary and Tipper.

So where did I get the idea as an adult? I suppose it was because everyone else was doing it.

I only sent out a holiday card once with my first husband. It was in 1988, and it had a picture of our two little children on it, Sabrina almost 4 and Ben just 5 months old. It was inspired by one of those special offers from a photo developing place, we will turn your picture into a holiday card. I think it said JOY on it, and maybe the J was a candy cane. This was the picture. Someone had given us a onesie for Ben that looked like a tuxedo. We shot almost an entire roll of film, using a tripod and timer, trying to get all four of us looking at the camera. Impossible. We finally gave up and got this great one of the two kids on the 36th (and last) picture in the roll. We handwrote a holiday letter to everyone on the back, but it was necessarily pretty short, since there wasn’t that much space, and our handwriting got messier as we went along. (Of course no computers then.) Our chief news was that we had produced these two adorable children. I mainly remember the fun of signing the cards S, B, S, & B (for Suzy, Barry, Sabrina, and Benjamin).

The next time I sent out a holiday card and letter was 17 years later, in 2005, with my second husband, and again it was the result of an offer from a photo company. Our synagogue had decided that the annual directory should have pictures of each family, so they arranged for a photographer to come and do portraits. The sitting and the picture for the directory were free, and then you could order others if you wanted them. I think the company was offering free holiday cards as well, so we couldn’t pass that up! Here was the picture. I haven’t found a copy of the actual card. We  produced a newsletter, by then on a computer, to go in the envelope with the card, but I don’t seem to have that any more either. Plenty of news to share, with our older daughter in college, our son in high school, and our younger daughter in elementary school. Ironically, not enough families in the congregation chose to have their pictures taken, so the temple never did do the photo directory.

The following year, 2006, we sent out our final (although we didn’t know it at the time) holiday card and letter, which is the featured image. It starts out, “We had such a good response to our first holiday card and letter last year that we decided to do it again. Rather than a posed family portrait this time, we are presenting you with a montage of photos of different family members, including our beloved 14-year-old cats, Hillary and Tipper.”

People thought we had done the whole thing on the computer, but we weren’t that tech savvy. We had five actual photographs that we cut to size and pasted on the paper after we had printed out the letter. The trickiest part was getting the left-hand edge of the writing to match the contours of the photos, which we did by increasing or decreasing the beginning of each line by one space at a time. We were thrilled with the way it turned out!

I’m amused that one of the things we said about me was that I was “finally learning to read Hebrew.” That was wishful thinking, because I never actually did.

I’m not sure why we never did another letter. Maybe we felt like that one was so perfect we could never top it. Or maybe when we read the holiday letters we received from friends and acquaintances, talking (bragging?) about all their accomplishments, we decided we didn’t want to engage in that competition any more.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your featured image is very impressive! I love the photos along the side inset with the wording. Great idea. I agree that group photos are difficult to accomplish but great when they work and fun to cherish. Interesting that your congregation tried to put together the photo directory. At least you have your great family shot from that attempt.

    Fewer and fewer people take the time and effort to do the holiday letter. Yours were wonderful.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    I salute you, Suzy, for perfecting your holiday card and letter and then retiring from it while on top. Part of me wishes that I could too. But you are so right about the process having a certain unsavory competitive side to it. I was once tempted to include an obviously untrue aside about having just won the Nobel Peace Prize, but worried that not everyone would get the joke.

    Besdies not, in fact, winning a Nobel, I also once again failed to recognize your song title. I knew Alison Krauss and Robert Plant had done a lot of collaborations, but this one was new to me. So I had to google it. And, as always, it’s a perfect title for your story.

    • Suzy says:

      The Plant-Krauss version of the song, from 2007, is great, thanks to her lovely voice and wonderful violin. There is an earlier version (1998) of Plant singing with Jimmy Page, his Led Zep bandmate, which is also great, but different. Thanks for following my song titles!

      • Dave Ventre says:

        I also missed the title; I’d never heard the song until five minutes ago. Very pretty, very sad. I like Plant, but Alison Krauss is simply spooky; how can any human both look and sing that good? Genetics is so unfair 🙂

        Amazing that your Letters were done manually. I think Holiday Letters only became a big thing after computers made such tasks less labor-intensive.

        Never done one myself; calling attention to one’s self is very un-Scandinavian.

  3. Wonderful story Suzy and as usual your creativity is showcased in the creation of your holiday letters.

    I too meant to learn Hebrew as an adult and to finally be Bat Mitzvahed. In fact I signed up for “One Week to Hebrew”. at our temple, but I only lasted for two days!

    And yes, to me too holidays letters always seemed to be a competition to see who traveled more that year and who had the most photogenic children!

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    When you don’t live near people, it is nice to get pictures, and glad you included a couple in this post. I save the ones from the mail and put them in an album with other random things. It isn’t easy to get the perfect shots, but in the end, they don’t need to be, just as our lives don’t either. Peace and love.

  5. Marian says:

    Great holiday letter, Suzy, and the more amazing that you did it manually. After a while it was challenging for people to send out accomplishments without seeming to boast, so between that and technology, maybe that’s why holiday letters declined. Really enjoyed your narrative.

  6. Jim Willis says:

    Suzy, I enjoyed reading your reflections on the holiday letters. There is a universal resonance to what you’ve written, as most of us have wrestled with what ways to reach out during these holidays. Thank you for sharing your memories, and I also share the challenge that Hebrew posed for you. I went to seminary for a couple years after college and, while I sailed through Greek, I could not handle Hebrew and barely passed the course! Happy holidays to you and your lovely family!

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I did enlarge and read the letter, Suzy, and it was great. I remember communicating by actually cutting, pasting, and glueing pictures and text on paper and then having it all copied at Kinkos. Love that Ben imitated Bill Cosby — that puts a certain date on it! Your pictures are truly keepsakes. Aren’t you glad you took that family portrait in 2005. Priceless!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Laurie. Hard to imagine now, but back when Ben was in high school, everybody loved Bill Cosby. And yes, I’m definitely glad we did that formal portrait in 2005, especially because we haven’t done another one since then, although I have lots of group photos of the extended family, as you’ll see in an upcoming prompt.

  8. It was fun to hear these details about your relationship with this fraught tradition of holiday cards and Christmas letters. It speaks well for you that you opted out of this exercise in braggodocio. Since nobody else commented, I also wanted to notice that your feline companions bore the names of the First Lady and the Veep’s wife. Kind of sassy.
    As an aside, I’ll have to keep you in mind, Suzy, if I ever start a side gig in the photography business, as you seem to have characterized yourself as an easy mark!

    • Suzy says:

      Long-time readers of Retrospect know all about my cats and their names from the 2017 story Stray Cat Strut. The salient sentences: “Since the 1992 presidential campaign was in full swing, we were inspired to name them Hillary and Tipper. We joked that if the election went the wrong way, we would have to change their names to Barbara and Marilyn.”

      And if you start a photography business, and take a good picture of me or my family, I’ll be happy to drop a bundle on copies. Just ask the photographer in Whittier who took Molly’s graduation pictures last year.

  9. Loved this holiday letter about holiday letters, Suzy! You snuck one over on us, as usual, enhanced with your wonderful photos. And I thought you were very restrained in your bragging. As usual, all related in your warm, fluid writing style. You make it look so easy!

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