In 2007, everything is art: the home videos you post on YouTube, your Facebook interests, your weepy blog. Time magazine told you that a while ago.

What they didn’t tell you – what I’m about to scoop them on, if you’re into that sort of thing – is that there’s another art form that’s gaining on 18th century literature and French sculpture and those other things Residential College students pretend to like more than Grey’s Anatomy.

Holiday letters – those 1,000-word mass mailings your mother writes around Christmas time with the play-by-play of your family’s accomplishments – are gaining on Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Naturally, some holiday letters are closer to “Gigli” than “Citizen Kane.” Consider an excerpt from a bad one my family received this year: “I’m a year and a half now, can hold my bladder pretty well, and have grown to a hearty 25 pounds. As the adoring dogger (doggy daughter), I have taken it upon myself to pry the computers from their laps to write this quick update on our lives this past year.”

Let us now stop and discuss what we’ve learned.

Especially if you’re like the authors of the letter, who are working toward doctorates and have attended more classes in their collegiate careers than Van Wilder, please do not write your family holiday letters from the perspective of the family dog. It’s not cute. It was, once, when the first person did it. It hasn’t been since and won’t be again.

If that one reads like it was written by a pre-pubescent Faulkner, another one my family received this year reads like it was written by a prime-of-his-career Hemingway.

Excerpt: “Frank is a junior in high school. He played strong safety in football. They had an 8-1 season, making it to the second round of the state playoffs. He has been a successful wrestler through the years and is off to a good start this year. He recently placed first in a 15 school tournament in Wisconsin. Frank still loves to hunt and fish. He killed his first deer with a bow this year.”

Simple. Good.

The letter-writer does not have a doctorate. He’s a farmer in Waukon, Iowa. The letter begins with a couple of paragraphs about the number of pigs they bred (28,000) and the number of full-time employees who work for them (four). It goes on to talk about his son’s football career at Division III Coe College (he accumulated 18 tackles, forced a fumble, intercepted a pass and recorded a sack in a game against Central). It also says that his son proposed and got married. And that’s the order, by the way: business, football, love.

However, writing clearly is not the true art of the holiday letter. Like a Hemingway short story or an iceberg, the critical part is what’s left out.

Here’s an example. Let’s say Johnny broke both his legs jumping from one balcony to another while on an acid trip at whatever public directional college (Southwestern State U.) he is close to failing out of.

In the vernacular of the holiday letter, this becomes: John had another successful semester at the university. He is working hard to graduate and is considering a career in health care after spending some time in the hospital. He is also having a lot of fun! Who says college isn’t the best time of your life?!?!

Or let’s assume father was convicted of a white-collar accounting crime, lost his CFO job and spent five months in a minimum-security prison.

Anthony was away on business for a while this year. Boy did we miss him! It gave him a little perspective, though, and he’s decided to try out a new line of work!!! Anyone know of any openings?

Or 16-year-old Jane is impregnated by a 23-year-old out-of-work pizza delivery boy/budding heavy metal guitarist with a tattoo (he showed you) of a topless Little Mermaid on his left pectoral muscle.

Our little Jane is becoming interested in boys. She’s been on a few dates with someone who’s very interested in music and film! It’s hard to believe she’s growing up so fast!!!

A few years ago, my family got a letter that didn’t follow the rules of disclosure. Every sordid detail of the parents’ divorce and its devastating psychological effects on the children was articulately recounted for posterity.

It was a stunning read. Entertaining. Memorable. Poignant. Daring. Like good art, it broke the rules and still worked. A little more Faulkner than Hemingway, to be sure.

It is worth noting, though, that Faulkner died a natural death of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 64. A year earlier, Hemingway put a double-barreled shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

– Karl Stampfl

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