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"Dear Friends and Family:" What Does Your Annual Holiday Letter Say About You?

December 14, 2010 – Fargo, N.D. – By now you’ve received some holiday letters in the mail, or you’re frantically trying to finish writing and sending your own annual missive to friends and family. A North Dakota State University professor studying approximately 1,200 such letters from the past decade, says the letters provide clues to interpersonal dynamics, as well as to current events. Dr. Ann Burnett, director of Women and Gender Studies at NDSU, notes that examples she studies range from creative to eccentric.

Portrait of Ann Burnette

Even in an age of social media, Burnett says the holiday letters shed light on what people think is important. Such letter writing became prolific with the advent of personal computers and easy access to photocopying, according to Burnett. They persist even in an age of blogging, Facebook and Twitter. “Perhaps people feel traditional tugs at the holiday season, so they go back to old traditions,” though she notes that more recently, she’s received such holiday letters via email. “Coupled with the expense of mailing, I think we’ll see fewer and fewer letters.”

In her collection of holiday letters, Burnett notes the most common format is the one-person-per-paragraph approach. Others look like newspapers, while still others embark on what the authors believe are creative approaches, such as using the 12 days of Christmas and adapting it to fit their families.

The letters seem to follow some general themes, according to Burnett. “There are lots of reports about what each family member has done. Lots of talk about travel or big projects. And lots of discussion about sicknesses and ailments—sometimes with more detail than necessary!” Others use it as an opportunity to brag about intelligent or talented children or their own achievements.

In a previous study, “Communicating and Philosophizing about Authenticity and Inauthenticity in a Fast-Paced World,” published in the Journal of Happiness, Burnett and co-authors Becky DeGreeff and Dennis Cooley analyzed holiday letters. The study examines how individuals talk about time in holiday letters, categorizing letters as authentic, in-authentic or in-between. An authentic holiday letter would be one that reflected on the impact of certain events during the year such as births, marriages or deaths—as a way to acknowledge how fleeting life is. An in-between letter might acknowledge important events, but fail to acknowledge their impact on the letter writer. In-authentic letters might include a bullet list of happenings, without any explanation. In this analysis, the colleagues found 5% of the letters to be authentic and 83% to be inauthentic.

Photo of a holiday letter and pen.

In reviewing letters from 2009, Burnett notes that a few talk about the tough economic times, but even more talk about the expensive trips and home renovations they’ve done. The letters also provide a window into current events as people comment on elections or the Iraq war.

One memorable letter in Burnett’s collection is written from the vantage point of deceased family pets who are now stuffed, residing in the den, and reflecting upon their family’s current activities. Another of Burnett’s favorites highlights the current breakneck pace of family life. “We start every day at 4:45 a.m., launch ourselves through the day at breakneck speed (the experience is much like sticking your head in a blender), only to land in a crumpled heap at 8:30 p.m., looking something like the Halloween witches impaled spread-eagle on front doors, wondering how we made it through the day. And the scary part is that our lives are no more hectic and stressful than yours are.”

Burnett is currently using holiday letters to analyze how people cope with hectic family lives and how motherhood is portrayed in such letters. While Burnett focuses on researching holiday letters, don’t expect to receive one from her any time soon. “I can’t bring myself to write a Christmas letter anymore.”

For more information:

Communicating and Philosophizing About Authenticity or Inauthenticity in a Fast-Paced World
Journal of Happiness Studies, Volume 11, Number 4, 395-408, DOI: 10.1007/s10902-009-9147-4
Becky L. DeGreeff, Ann Burnett and Dennis Cooley

Earning the badge of honor: the social construction of time and the pace of life
Burnett, Ann., Gorsline, Denise., Semlak, Julie. and Tyma, Adam
Presented paper: National Communication Association Annual Convention, Chicago, IL, Nov. 14, 2007

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