BY MATT SALIS
Technological advancements have changed our lives in amazing ways. For instance, I am a big fan of indoor plumbing, and, while I curse the Xcel Energy bill all winter, I am glad that I have never had to venture into the forest to chop firewood to keep my family warm. I love how connected we are to our kids as I know they wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their beloved phones, and I like how easy Google has made it to solve any dispute from how far the DU Men’s Soccer Team made it in the NCAA tournament last year (for the record, they made the final four) to how many gallons of water the Hoover Dam holds back. I can’t yet get my arms around the usefulness of having an Amazon drone deliver a box of cereal to my doorstep, but I am sure someday I will find this service indispensable.
Despite all the glories technology brings us, it does leave a trail of destruction in its wake. Just last night I had dinner with a friend who used to own a one-hour photo processing business. He lamented that his $4k machine was replaced by a $50 home printer. Look at the carnage the internet has created. Newspapers, home electronics stores and book stores cling to relevance and solvency. Do you remember the Seinfeld episode about the “Movie Phone” service they called to find what was playing where and when? How about the phone book that once sat quiet and proud in the corner of the kitchen giving homeowners the comfort and assurance that a trusted friend was there to serve as a digit-listing resource or as a booster seat for toddler-aged dinner guest. Gone. All gone. Victims of advancement. Time marches on. So, too, does technology, and I am not so old and curmudgeonly as to suggest that I would have it any other way.
But there is one technology-eradicated holiday tradition that is near and dear to the memories of my heart. I lament the savage destruction of the annual correspondence at the hands of facebook and other social media. I miss my beloved Christmas letters.
I didn’t read them as they arrived in the mail one or two a day. I waited until a few days before Christmas, found a cozy chair, put on my Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas album and snuggled in with a glass of eggnog and a pile of heartfelt greetings from family and friends.
I always snickered a bit at how the children of all of my friends and family were excelling at school and in sports. The Christmas letter was a place to highlight youthful accomplishment, not tell tales of dealing with a bully or failing algebra or being cut from the soccer team. The picture painted by the Christmas letter was always of peace, harmony and – above all – success. Trying to read between the lines and guess about the challenging family conversations of adolescent angst and pubescent insecurity always made me grin at the realities of life the letter writer glossed over while describing family utopia. So many perfect little families.
My Aunt Laurie’s letter was particularly amusing because she took a different tact and dedicated three to four paragraphs to the bungling decisions and many medical ailments of my Uncle Bob. They say love is blind. That must explain why Bob and Laurie were married – he must have been too blind to read what his wife wrote about him in her Christmas letter each year.
I loved trying to peel back the covers on Uncle Tom’s letter each year. He spent some serious time trying to one-up his Christmas letter from the previous year. I distinctly remember the letter that he did entirely in the form of a poem. The memories he shared probably took him half-an-hour to recall. Finding the perfect rhyme for “volcano hiking” or “Chattanooga” probably took him days. I admired his dedication to his craft, and giggled at the time-consuming pain of his process.
Toward the end of the holiday letter writing era that was born with my parents’ generation and died with my facebook-loving generation, some of my friends got smart and mailed New Year’s letters in January instead of Christmas letters in December. While this move did not comply with my cozy little eggnog sipping pre-Christmas reading ceremony, it gave me something to look forward to in the long, dark, cold days of January. The New Year’s letter was inclusive and brilliant. I loved receiving them from our Jewish friends. I wanted to hear them brag about their children, too. For others, it was a sign that they were comfortable with the fact that December is uber-busy and they didn’t have time to write letters and stuff envelopes between neighborhood parties and trips to the mall. It was classy and confident. For still others, it was an admission that they just didn’t get their poop in a group well enough that year, and the annual recap didn’t get done until the calm after the storm.
There was something really special about these holiday letters. That something is simply lost when it is replaced by fifty or so non-connected status updates or Instagram captions spread over twelve months. Some of the letters we received were elegant and beautifully structured. Others were poorly written with grammar mistakes and incoherent rambling. But they all took time and love to compose, and being included on the recipient list meant something. It meant some long-lost college buddy or distant relative I had only met once or twice as a child still cared about me. It meant that while a year would pass without a call or email or maybe even an occasional thought, I was still worthy of looking up an address and licking a stamp.
I haven’t seen you since graduation, but I can read in your letter that you love your wife and are proud of your kids. I don’t even know the set of cousins my distant Aunt is writing about, but I know they warm her heart – and that fact – that display of her emotion – warms my heart a little, too.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise after reading my longing for yesteryear, I still write a Christmas letter each December. My wife, Sheri, makes homemade Christmas cards until her fingers hurt and she runs out of time and resorts to a pack or store-bought cards for the latter half of our Christmas card list. She searches through a box for return addresses on received envelopes and a hand written address book full of scratch-outs and paper scraps. She does so in spite of her knowledge she could have an email sent simply by typing the first few letters of the recipients name on the “To” line in Gmail. We print and fold and add a quick and dirty personal salutation. We try to love the process even though it costs us some desperately needed sleep and adds to the stress and tension that already overflows during the holidays.
I am painfully aware that it sounds like I am boasting about clinging to this holiday tradition as though adhering to the arduous process of mailing Christmas letters makes me more festive or reverent. That is not it at all. I know I am stubbornly clinging to something that no longer exists.
I cling because it feels like the exact opposite of how I feel when I go to the internet or social media. Screen time reminds me of the hate that underlies passionate rants and screaming electronically into the abyss. Screen time reminds me of how much work I need to do like an injection of stress and pressure. Screen time reminds me we are closer to nuclear war than ever before in my lifetime.
I cling because I want to sip eggnog and listen to Ella’s beautiful voice belt out wishes for joy and peace on earth. I cling because I want to see those dear to me brag about the most important responsibilities they will ever undertake. I cling because while technology can replace many important things in our lives, it can’t replace the love we share for each other.
Maybe you can find the time to squeeze out a few paragraphs of love for your people this holiday season. I am not suggesting it will end the hate, violence, stress and fear that permeates our society. But maybe…just maybe…when paired with a little nog and Ella, it will feel like a warm-squeezy hug from miles away for someone you love who really needs it. Do you know anyone who couldn’t use a little extra love right now?
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus to the restofus, and Happy New Year from your tradition clinging neighbor!