WHAT THEY WRITE
It's been an eventful year for the family, and Bill and I can't wait for Christmas and the new year. Stephanie is as lively as ever and is very eager to see the world. And the headmaster at Theo's school says he is growing into a really determined young man. Must catch up next year.
WHAT THEY MEAN
Dear person I met once,
Glad 2008 is over, I don't know how we survived it. My husband briefly left me for another woman, but he's vowed to turn over a new leaf. Stephanie's out of control and ran away twice. Theo's been suspended for bullying. I don't expect a reply because let's face it, we're never going to see each other again.
News of high-achieving children, exotic holidays and pay rises are being dropped through letter-boxes across the nation, tucked inside a Christmas card. But is the annual round-robin letter a welcome way for busy people to stay in touch, or an unsolicited irritation, asks Tom Geoghegan.
They usually paint a glossy picture of modern life, in which even life's troubles are airbrushed beyond recognition.
Sprinkled with Latin accomplishments of the child you've never met, the pay rise of the husband you never liked and the excruciating detail of the family's cruise holiday you care nothing for, the Christmas newsletter is for many recipients something to endure rather than enjoy.
Many are just laden with too much detail. Every December for 10 years, a dreaded envelope with the tell-tale Surrey postcode, drops on to the doormat of Noel and Ellen Turner's home in the Isle of Wight.
Inside is a Christmas card and four pages of typed A4, always recounting safari trips to Kenya.
"Their newsletter once a year consists of nothing else but lists of the animals they've seen and photos of them," says engineer Mr Turner, 49.
"It's the equivalent of that nightmare evening you hate to be invited to, when neighbours say 'Come and look at our holiday snaps' and you can't avoid it.
"It's not the sort of detail you would need to know, even if you were most intimately acquainted with the couple.
"But when you're not and you're just on a newsletter, it's extraordinary that they think you might be interested."
This annual irritation from London's stockbroker belt inspired the couple to go public - penning a book which lampoons the whole phenomenon. Called Noel and Ellen's Strange and Wonderful History of the Dreaded Christmas Newsletter, it has spoof round-robin letters from historical figures like Henry VIII.
Mr Turner thinks these letters are on the rise, as more people become PC-literate and are able to ping off copies at the click of a mouse. And it saddens him that the art of the handwritten note is being lost.
"You can't write them in a personal way, that's the chief sin. You send it out and it's the same information to grandma and to someone you met once in the Outer Hebrides.
"There's a certain egocentricity in assuming that people are interested in the minutiae of what people put in these things, and that's the flaw."
The tradition has become the object of ridicule. In a collection published by the Guardian's Simon Hoggart, one mother wrote:
"Harry was Jesus in the school Jesus Christ, Superstar. This was the best production I have ever seen, youth or adult. Both boys, especially Harry, were physically and emotionally drained at the end. I was drained too… seeing your son crucified nightly is not an experience I would recommend."
Like a cc e-mail, these letters feel like they are not for you, says etiquette expert Judi James. But it's the self-congratulatory tone that is hardest to swallow.
"They are people that want to lead those idealistic family lives, usually with two children. If you have more children, you're too busy. And if you haven't got kids, you're probably too busy having a life.
"The letters are very much associated with the nuclear family. It's like you have to have the ideal life before you can put pen to paper.
"You never get them from losers. My friends with 10 cats never send them. They are always middle-class with a doorstep. No-one in flats sends them."
Laugh at yourself
Remember that some friends may not be as successful as you
Identify everyone you mention
Be selective whom you write to
Besides, if you only know someone well enough to communicate once a year, isn't it time to take a step back and ask "is this relationship valuable". If it's a yes then pick up the phone and talk, says Ms James.
So is there nothing to recommend the roundly derided round-robin? Ms James finds solace in one aspect at least - the delicate literary sidestepping of bad news. Euphemisms in this context are a very British phenomenon: the stiff upper-lip in adversity at a time of year when people don't want to sound doom-laden.
"Even if half the family has been wiped out and the house has fallen down, they will make it sound not that bad."
Write in the voice of your pet
Write in verse
Overwhelm with details
Source: Newsletter doctor, Tilly Lavenas
And in this season of goodwill, perhaps the level of bitterness with which they are received may say more about the "Bah, humbug" attitude of the recipient, says Ms James.
"They mean well and if they come across as smug and patronising, it is probably the reader's fault. It's like when someone sends you a perfectly nice e-mail but you're in a bad mood so it appears rude."
There is nothing wrong with making proud announcements, says Tilly Lavenas, who advises people on how to make their newsletters more engaging. But you should write about them in a subtle way.
"You can imply that your daughter is doing very well in her new job in the City but you don't need to come out and say she's making a hundred grand and she's only 22 years old."
Given some humour and depth, they can be an engaging way of staying in touch, says Ms Lavenas. Formerly based in the US, she says it's an American concept that hasn't really taken off in the UK.
"It's kind of bragging. People like to highlight their achievements of the year and that's more American. People here like to hide their light under a bushel."
So the problem may lie, not with the sender, but with a British reluctance to tell each other how good life can be.
Below is a selection of your comments.
My favourite gem in a RR was the detailed account of how the public swimming pool had to be evacuated & closed for cleaning after the daughter had an "accident" during a swimming lesson. Charming!
Anon to spare the sender's blushes, Cambridge
A friend of our family once sent a letter round that was the complete opposite of the usual stuff in these letters, and completely fictitious (but extremely funny). Details included, the failed parole of her husband after the armed robbery, the 14th abortion for her 17-year-old daughter. Her son had just managed to lose £24,000 in a cocaine deal with some Russians that went horribly wrong, and she had been put on the game to pay the bills.
So much better than a dull card saying dear X, From Y - who much thought goes into that?
Several years ago we spent a very enjoyable evening with friends as they did dramatic readings of some of these letters they'd received from other friends and relatives. Destructive, unhousebroken dogs; imprisoned, abusive relatives; aging parents in the throes of dementia; disturbed, underperforming children; impending divorces. Apparently there was no topic too private to share, and by the end we didn't know whether to laugh or cry because the topics sometimes verged on tragic, while the writers persisted in sharing the information in a weirdly upbeat and cheerful tone.
Efrye, Ann Arbor, Michigan, US
Gosh - what a load of misanthropes. But one thing does baffle me ... if you don't like the missives why do you read them? I suspect you are secretly envious. Otherwise, why would you care.
David, Olney, Bucks
In an age when people seem to be obsessed with every minor detail about the lives of celebrities, why is it such a crime to hear news from friends from our past who we actually know and, given more time, we might like to be in touch with again?
Pete, Ipswich, UK
This year I found myself the subject of one of these round robins, as my grandfather (aged 90) declared to all and sundry that despite getting married last year, I had not yet made him a great-grandfather, I was his only hope to carry on the family line and he feared he wouldn't see the day etc etc. Nothing like a little emotional blackmail at this time of year, eh? Needless to say I am not the biggest fan of these missives.
Carole, Suffolk, UK
We recently received one that was written, apparently, by the two cats of some people we haven't seen for years. The owners had even gone to the trouble of contriving different personalities for the two animals. That one ended up on the fridge door so we could all have a good laugh about it.
Steve James, London, England
As someone who has lived and worked in many countries around the world - where we have built up strong and enduring friendships, the annual "Round Robin" has become a wonderful way to keep in touch. Most of us are adult enough to also include the "annus horribilis" news in our letters and are able to be realistic about what has happened to us. For our family, we would feel very impoverished not to be in such contact - and as a bonus the email system saves a great deal of very costly postage and missed deadlines to far off lands!
Michael Pressland, Beckenham
I always send them and love to receive them. Having moved house several times to different parts of the country there are people I no longer see but whose news I am definitely interested in. Sure I'd love a handwritten note even more but most people don't have time to do this on every letter they send. I am sick of cynical articles like this one lampooning the round-robin letter. It puts people off sending them which means I hear no news of several old friends these days.
We get the same letter every year for 13 years, typed with our names handwritten at the top. The letter tells us about their promotions at work, how well the darling child is doing at school, how they enjoyed the skiing trip. Not once have they asked "hope things are ok with you". This year, to our disappointment, we haven't had one. Strange, I thought, until I found out that he had been made redundant from his job. How I laughed, but then saddened that they feel they can't contact us because of the shame of losing his job.
I rather look forward to receiving them from some people - one in particular always has be laughing out loud. This year's began "It has taken me a rather large sherry to help me start this year's missive..." and another notable line is "X now has a boyfriend at Y University studying computer gaming. No comment."
Merry Christmas everyone! Sorry I've not sent cards this year - I've just been too busy achieving in every aspect of my life...
Helen, Sheffield, UK