A gift of the season: annual letters, cards

December 28, 1997|By Sara Engram

DEEP INTO the night, with the house quiet after a full Christmas day, the fax machine clicked into service. The next morning, we discovered our first faxed Christmas greeting.

A fax-style holiday scene of a horse, sleigh, trees, a stream and a chapel in the distance was accompanied by a seasonal message from a distant business associate.

Pondering this phenomenon, I recalled my own reaction years ago to a development in the holiday greeting custom that in those pre-fax, pre-e-mail days struck many people as a questionable concession to convenience -- the family letter enclosed in a Christmas card. Shouldn't holiday news be personal, penned in readable handwriting and tailored to each recipient?

In those days, such feelings were apparently shared even by the senders of those letters. They often began with round-about apologies -- ''We swore we'd never do a family form letter, but here we go . . . .'' Or, ''We wish we could write each one of you individually, but with all the children's activities . . . .''

But in the past few years, especially as home computers and printers improve, those apologies have faded away. Now, as Christmas cards arrive, I find myself looking forward to the family letters and even feeling a bit disappointed when there's only a handwritten sentence or two.

There are probably several reasons for my change of heart. For one, I like keeping up with my friends, including the everyday news of children's soccer teams and cheerleading squads, along with job changes, marriages, births or deaths. Those form letters often tell all that and more.

For another, these letters provide a lively record of family life in the late 20th century. I envy the friends whose family letter now extends back to the year their older child, now 18, was a baby.

They've kept a scrapbook of these letters and annual family pictures. By now, it is a valuable chronicle. Which year did they take that special trip? When did their children first go off to summer camp? The custom of annual letters can easily become a family history that will be prized by future generations.

Then there are the annual letters that somehow rise above the news of the day to the kind of communication I want to collect and save for years. One such tradition, the annual Thanksgiving letter from Whitty and Merrimon Cuninggim, has been among the first to arrive at our house, and has perennially been one of the most engaging and inspiring.

We were privileged to be on this list since the Cuninggims' moved from North Carolina to the Baltimore area a decade ago, a ''retirement'' in name only, as they stayed involved in the many activities and interests that had always filled their busy, productive lives. With Merrimon's death two years ago, Whitty kept up both her busy schedule and the tradition of the annual letter.

But in this year's installment, along with news of her civic activities and of her childrens' families, Whitty noted that with her 80th birthday approaching, the task of addressing several hundred letters was becoming burdensome. The 1997 installment of the annual Cuninggim letter will be the last.

That news was sad, yet somehow comforting. Customs like holiday greetings take time and effort, but they bring rich rewards. For all of us there comes a time when that balance begins to shift. One reason the Cuninggim letter was such a favorite of mine is that these two people have always seemed, more than most of us, to be in touch with life's deeper rhythms, both its endless possibilities and its inherent limits.

Our family will not be the only one to miss that letter in coming years. But we will be among many who have looked forward to those communiques and, having read them, unfailingly felt a little more inspired both to revel in life's pleasures and to meet its challenges with the best effort we can muster.

Could this holiday season bring any better gift?

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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