Alexander McCall Smith: The art of writing Christmas letters

If you get a Christmas card from Charles and Camilla, be sure to mention it in seasonal letters to family and friends (Picture: Getty)
If you get a Christmas card from Charles and Camilla, be sure to mention it in seasonal letters to family and friends (Picture: Getty)
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If you received an OBE or similar award this year, do not mention it directly in seasonal letters to friends and family, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

It is December once more – an observation of considerable triteness, but one of unchallengeable accuracy. This is a month noted for its joie de vivre, bonhomie and what the German language, with typical economy, calls Weinachteneinkäuferwartung (or something like that). It is significant, perhaps, that the English language has no specific noun for the state of mind that settles on many of us during this special month. This state is marked by a niggling desire to get away – anywhere – in order to escape the state of mind that appears to affecting others.

For some, the first appearance of Christmas lights is the signal that things are about to go downhill. In Edinburgh, this happens now in September, immediately after the Edinburgh Festival. This is in accordance with the desire of our local tourism promoters – a couthie lot – to inflict festivals on the long-suffering inhabitants of this city 24/7, as the expression has it, and, indeed, 12/12. For this, many feel they should be awarded 1/10. But that is another subject, and it is too depressing to talk about it in a month during which we are all so spontaneously cheerful. The Reverend I.M. Jolly we most certainly are not.

However, one feature of December that is genuinely enjoyable is the Christmas letter that people like to send their friends and relatives round about now. These are wonderful things to receive, and who does not feel a certain disappointment when they open a Christmas card and find that it contains nothing but good wishes for Christmas and the New Year? There is no point in sending others such thin fare: of course they have such wishes for you, and it would be odd, if not actually hurtful, if they were not to harbour such thoughts. By contrast, finding a cyclostyled letter within is a bonus, and sets the heart racing with anticipation.

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An important thing to understand about these letters is that they give an opportunity to boast, usually about one’s offspring. Usually this involves exam results, which form, on average, about half the content of a Christmas letter. When it comes to Highers and A levels and such things, people have no shame in trumpeting them loudly in the seasonal letter. Indeed, I have heard that the SQA, which controls exam results, is seriously thinking of withholding their release until December each year in order to ensure their topicality for Christmas letters. This is a helpful suggestion, although it may complicate university admission, which of course is another very fitting topic for the Christmas letter.

What you should do in this respect is mention exam results indirectly. Don’t say Jane got nine As in her exams this year. That is clearly boastful and in bad taste. Rather, you should write, “Jane (17) is still a bit worried about her university admission. I have assured her that anyone who gets nine (9) A grades in her Advanced Highers has no need to worry, but does she listen to me? You know how children are!”

Other family achievements should not be forgotten, and should all be referred to in a good Christmas letter. Once again, insert the information indirectly, as in this example: “We all went to Rome this year and had a wonderful time. The Pope looks so much younger, you know, when you see him close up. I mean, really close up, in his private study.” That conveys, in a very tactful way, the message you wish to convey. Then you might add, “We were a bit nervous of course, as this is the first time that we have had a direct experience of the beatification of a close relative (Great Uncle Thomas). But it was such a simple, rather moving ceremony and we had a lovely dinner afterwards in a modest trattoria ...”

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If you received an OBE or similar award this year, do not mention it directly. The following form of words will suffice: “We couldn’t get away in July, as planned, as I had to go down to London (or Edinburgh) – just for the morning – what a bind!” If you went to the Garden Party, then the only way of conveying that information is to say something like this: “My goodness, it was a battle getting into my morning suit (kilt/appropriate national dress) in July. There I was enjoying my statutory cucumber sandwich under the gaze of Arthur’s Seat, thinking of the strict diet ahead!” No more than that is necessary.

All heavy colds and injuries must be mentioned. The attachment of a small photograph of an X-ray plate is optional. That, believe it or not, really was in a Christmas letter we received a few years ago. The fracture was an interesting one.

Hope to see you next year! Good luck with the Advanced Highers (not that you’ll need it!)