A Card for Aunt Hilda
Gary A. Fritz on Christmas Letters & Vanishing Connections
My annual duty is done. I’ve written the card, stamped and addressed the envelope, and taken it out to be mailed. I’m pretty old-school, you see. Well, actually it’s my aunt who is old-school. Hilda is 88, lives in Seattle, and her hearing, health, and memory are failing. But she remains as strong-willed as ever, so I know what kind of disdainful reaction there would be to any of those Christmas form letters. “I don’t read them,” she would quip with just the right dose of holiday bitterness in her voice.
And so, every year, when it comes time for the annual holiday letter, Hilda is the exception, receiving from me a hand-written note in a real Christmas card. Everyone else receives the standard printed letter, the newsy update of life at the Fritz house. But this exercise of appeasing my aunt, this yearly task of sitting down with pen and card, always gives me pause to consider.
The truth is, I prefer the card, and I prefer to write by hand. For in so doing, I don’t just send thoughts and sentiments to Hilda; I send a part of me. It is the sharing of myself in a physical, tangible manner that enhances this card. It will contain less news and fewer thoughts than the printed letter, yet somehow it will be more real and, consequently, more me.
The form letter will be perfect—margins justified, words spelled correctly, completely legible. My card may have a word or two crossed out, perhaps a smudge, and certainly the fading legibility that comes with fatigue. But it will be real, a little bit of me, and not just mechanically generated text.
Too Little Time
I remember my days as a college freshman. I attended school in Nebraska, while my girlfriend, now my wife, stayed closer to home in Minnesota. Every day, sometimes twice a day, I would go to the campus post office seeking a letter or a card from her. And on those days when there was something waiting for me—ah, heaven! Most of the time, what I found was handwritten, not typed, and certainly not word-processed in those pre-PC days. These notes and letters were cherished gems of gold, which I read and re-read, drinking in every word, every letter, every stroke of the pen. And I have saved every one of them.
Thinking about them makes me realize that, if the tradition of sending Christmas greetings is going to persist, I would prefer to receive handwritten, “just for me” missives, like the ones my wife sent me in college. I want to receive real cards with real notes, even if only a paragraph long, and I also want to send them. I want to handle the card, the paper, and the pen.
But I simply do not have the time. At a time of year when “peace” is an unavoidable term, it often turns out to be an unattainable reality. All of us are deluged with demands on our time and energy—from work, from home, even from ourselves. Get the tree. Put up the tree. Run to the mall. Put up the lights. Go to the concert. Prepare the food.
And compose the form letter because there isn’t the time to write personal notes. So year after year, I plop down at the computer to compose the letter, the one that will be witty, perhaps a bit provocative, and of course, full of the latest endeavors of children and parents. And even if I succeed in saying everything just right, I find myself getting irritated—irritated at the fact that I feel cornered somehow into writing these letters.
Then, the other day, my wife told me she had received, not one, but two Christmas letters via email. And here I’ve been ranting about the form letter. At least with the form letter you still have to handle the paper, fold the letter, and stuff and seal the envelope. Now we can reduce the process to simply punching the send button, all in the name of cost-saving efficiency and convenience. And we are removed one step further from the concrete and the personal.
I have heard cyber-villages lauded as the new mode of community and connectedness. But my son, assigned to write a satire for his high-school English class, chose to satirize the “virtual Thanksgiving dinner,” where family members scattered around the country assemble for the annual gathering, not in person, but in cyberspace via their computer monitors. Yet, in an age with instant messages and instant information, what he was satirizing seems to be, for more and more people, becoming the norm.
Every day, in the school where I teach, I see students walking through the hallways with fingers flying on their mini keypads, their faces so absorbed in electronically created text that they are oblivious to their fellow students passing literally within inches of them. It is not uncommon for a student to ignore a spoken greeting from a person standing right next to him because he is so intent on text messaging someone miles away.
No doubt, these students think they are connecting with others, but they appear to me to be trying so hard to be connected that they actually have no connection at all. I think of C. S. Lewis, who once asked if there were any greater pleasure on earth than a circle of Christian friends gathered around a fire. There are no fires in cyberspace (any more than there are real Thanksgiving dinners), and, much as we might like to think otherwise, there is no replacement for tangible interaction with people who are physically present with us.
In Lewis’s books also, I detect a desire for the authentic, while the false, the imitation, and the substitute are held in disdain. I suspect that this desire lies at the heart of his comment about fires and friends—combined, they make up a real pleasure, a true joy. But note also that they are Christian friends. The essential ingredient that enables people to attain real and full joy is their connection with Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
A Little Bet
The tide that is sweeping us along, which is largely generated by a technological ethos, shows no sign of abatement. Rather, the swells are growing larger and larger. The argument is that the advances made are enhancing our humanity, and if there are any costs, they are worth the fee. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Just as it becomes colder and darker the further we travel from the sun, so also, what it means to be human is diminished the further we wander from the truth of life in Jesus.
Admittedly, the Christmas form letter, or even email, does not necessarily signal our wandering from the truth of Christ. But it is good, in the season of celebrating his Incarnation, to keep in mind the importance—and the joy—of tangible, personal connections with others.
So the next time you trudge out to the mailbox and gather the bundle of Christmas letters, provided any arrive the old-fashioned way, take note of which one you relish most. My money is on the hand-written card.
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“A Card for Aunt Hilda” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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