Once upon a time, not all that long ago, people sent friends and family Christmas cards with personal messages. Not just the ones already printed in the cards, but personal, handwritten messages that recalled the shared happiness of prior Christmases, expressed affection, and offered wishes for God’s blessings.
Some people still do that, and they deserve our respect for keeping the real spirit of the season alive. But all too often today, Christmas cards contain no personal message at all, but just a folded letter reminding us how wonderful the sender and his/her family are. The recitation of accomplishments, honors, and peak experiences typically begins with the events of last New Year’s Day and works its breathless way to the present moment.
What happened to us to make such a sad change in the way we communicate with others at this joyous season of Christ’s birth?
The answer is, in the 1960s humanistic psychology introduced the Gospel of Self and it quickly became embedded in popular culture. According to that gospel, we are all born wise and good and anything that goes wrong in our lives is someone else’s fault—Mom and Dad, teachers, preachers, or the whole sorry bunch. Furthermore, that gospel proclaimed, the only genuine source of knowledge, truth, and reality is within us, not in some objective philosophic or religious code. Finally, real fulfillment in life comes from indulging our whims, increasing our self-esteem, and celebrating ourselves.
The modern Christmas letter is a perfect expression of the Gospel of Self. It says, in effect, “Look folks, this joyous season is all about me and, when I’m feeling generous, my family. It has nothing to do with you, but because we are so special, we’re going to give you a glimpse into our wonderful lives. Don’t thank us, we’re doing it out of the goodness of our hearts.” (Ain’t self-love grand.)
Of course, this description does not apply to every Christmas letter. There are exceptions, of course. (Diplomacy requires me to say the ones my family members send me are in this category.) But it applies to far too many.
Someone I know, I’ll call him Arnold, gets so upset at receiving all those self-congratulatory missives that he composed a tongue-in-cheek letter of his own. It went like this:
Christmas greetings to family and friends,
It was a so-so year. I attempted to do a lot, managed to get a few things done, with generally disappointing results. Many more things I didn’t get done; in some cases I didn’t even get beyond the “I really should do that” stage. Nobody seems surprised by my lethargy, though, probably because I live in a retirement community in Florida, where lethargy is a way of life. Being lazy is de rigueur.
It’s customary in these Christmas letters to regale everyone with stories of all the wonderful places I visited—“Went to France and climbed the Eiffel Tower. Nice view,” or “Spent a month traveling around Russia. It’s big,” or “Cruised the Caribbean, stopped at various ports of call, but always stayed on board so as not to miss lunch.” The fact is, however, I didn’t go anywhere interesting. Oh, I went to the mall occasionally and had breakfast with friends at Mom & Pop’s Eatery every Wednesday. But that’s hardly the kind of detail that gives style to a Christmas letter.
Well, one thing was kind of special: I took a trial membership in a health club. I was hoping to do what wealthy people do here in Florida—hire a surrogate to go and exercise for me—but I couldn’t afford it. So I went myself but quit after the first day. Being around all those fit people made me self-conscious and depressed.
I’d love to add some impressive family achievements to this Christmas letter, so everyone would realize how exceptional my family is. You know, things like my granddaughter was Queen of the Pomegranate Bowl and my grandson has an IQ of 201 and is a Rhodes scholar. But that would be such a stretch that no one would believe it. Actually, the most important events in my family this year were my daughter running off with that ex-convict and my son being arrested for shoplifting.
Anyway, I’m sure your year was much more rewarding than mine. And don’t think for a moment that I don’t resent you for it.
All the best,
Arnold didn’t actually send the letter, of course. But writing it lifted his spirits. And to keep them lifted in the future, he has vowed that when he receives one of those Christmas letters, he’s not going to read it. As he explained, “Ignorance of other people’s wonderful lives is bliss.” (I should add that he’s really not as curmudgeonly as he sounds. He gave me a lovely Christmas blessing—without a self-congratulatory letter, of course.)
Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved