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Times tough on holiday letter writers

I know what time it is.

We’re eating Thanksgiving leftovers. The official holiday shopping season is launched. The ho-ho-ho songs are ringing forth from elevators, malls, radio stations and (I swear) oozing from our very pores. That can only mean one thing – it’s time to pen the annual holiday newsletter.

You know what these letters are. You write ’em; you get ’em. They are as ubiquitous as plastic trees at the mall. A lot of them are informative and entertaining, nicely designed and with updated photos of friends, grandchildren, vacations and all. The writing is crisp and mercifully brief, a delight to receive.

Some, however, are abysmally long and excruciatingly explicit, filled with mind-numbing minutiae and, often, really inappropriate information. I received one a few years ago that laid out with some detail graphic descriptions of a recent accident and the clinical miseries that followed. Then, without a pause or attempt at a transition, lurched into a chirpy “Merry Christmas to everyone” wrap-up. No, the writer wasn’t being ironic or facetious or wry; she just finished one thought stream and moved merrily to the next.

I’m not sure this was the intended effect, but I laughed out loud. I mean, I was sorry about the accident and all, but the juxtaposition was, well, funny.

But now I face my own writing dilemma.

I used to hand-write individual notes on each greeting card, but I had to abandon that after an injury weakened my writing hand. So I defaulted to the dreaded typed, mass-produced newsletter. I try to make what is otherwise a form letter detailed and personal enough to be relevant to family and friends who are actually interested in our family exploits but also light and breezy enough for those who really don’t welcome a whole lot of in-depth information.

But this season, more than any before, there are so many people I know who are having a difficult time. It’s not uncommon for the holiday blues to descend on many of us, but this is more than that.

Mostly, this is happening with people my own age, in their 60s and beyond. In addition to those I know experiencing hard realities from the economic downturn, I have a friend who is grieving the loss of his wife and life partner of 42 years. This is his first Christmas without her. A cousin has an elderly mother in the final stages of Alzheimer’s; her mother no longer recognizes her. Another friend will this month move her mother from the apartment where she lived independently for many years into an assisted living facility; her mother doesn’t want to go. The list goes on.

For those of us with graying hair, it’s not that we didn’t have tragedies and setbacks when we were younger, but back then, frankly, there were fewer of them, and we were more resilient. If we live long enough and are fortunate enough, we acquire a critical mass of family and friends of similar vintage. That’s the upside. The downside is that the odds catch up and life’s realities bump into you and those you care about.

I don’t mean to dwell on the negative. Mostly, this is a happy time, really. There are so many we are close with who are celebrating the birth of grandchildren, reaching retirement (with pensions intact) and planning trips to wonderful places. Life is good.

How do you write a one-size-fits-all holiday letter in these conflicted circumstances? Sure, I can write a couple of different versions, omit a letter in certain cases or maybe not send a card at all to some friends. That’s what I could do, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to communicate with each and every one of the people I care about as I have each and every year, with that same cheesy family newsletter they always get from my husband and me. Some things shouldn’t change.

I want to treat my family and friends as the loved people they are – yes, to acknowledge their pain, but not single them out for special handling (because I think that would make them uncomfortable). And I want to wrap them in my regular group hug (at least to the degree that one can be delivered in a holiday newsletter).

I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do this, but I will try my very best. And I will not detail how sedation failed to knock me out during my recent colonoscopy and then segue into greetings of the season. I should be able to pull that off at least.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists/.