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Easy to scorn, the holiday letter still hard to give up

Peter and Annie Blatz write two holiday letters, one that shares a more polished version of their lives and a private one for their own enjoyment.

Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe

Peter and Annie Blatz write two holiday letters, one that shares a more polished version of their lives and a private one for their own enjoyment.

When the mail arrives at her Andover home, Chris Williams eagerly searches for the holiday letters. She’s eager to read updates from family and friends — but she also has darker motives. She and pals hold a snarky annual competition for the worst holiday letter, and she’s hoping for a winner.

“Bragging is the key to winning,” she said of the letters, “but revealing sensitive or inappropriate information also earns points.”

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But here’s the thing about Chris Williams. She’s not just a mocker. She’s a potential mockee. Yes, the woman who pokes fun at others’ letters sends out a holiday letter of her own.

“The older I get,” the 50-year-old said, “the more I realize that life is short, and it’s important to take the time to share the good times with the people you love.”

You’d think by now the holiday letter would be a relic, derided to extinction, or rendered obsolete by the year-round over-sharing opportunities offered by social media. But even in 2013, when eye-rolling about holiday letters has become a winter sport, many still feel called to the keyboard.

Let people laugh, said letter writer Annie Blatz, a realtor from Brewster, with the confidence of a best-selling author. “They read every single word.”

Blatz and her husband actually write two holiday letters. One shares the somewhat polished version of their lives. “As another year draws to a close we are blessed with good health and a loving family,” the 2013 version begins. Then there’s the “real” letter, the private one written for the couple’s own enjoyment. This year it mentioned a car crash, eye surgeries, failing hearing, and the death of the family cat — all of which had been redacted from the public document.

“It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde story,” said Blatz.

Many holiday letter authors describe writing sessions that drag on for weeks, and others talk about deadline pressure that starts before Thanksgiving. Some letters trigger disputes among family members with different ideas of what’s fair game.

So why go to all the trouble?

A number of writers say their public demands it. It has become a tradition — whether they like it or not. “I can’t get out of it,” said Kathy Baron, an organization development consultant at Harvard University. “Friends e-mail me and say it’s so funny. On Facebook, they say ‘keep writing it.’”

Baron, a self-described “nonletter person,” says her dispatch started out as a satire of the genre, in 2004, and has transformed into something more serious, even if she does write it in the voice of her dog, the cats, or, this year, her eighth-grade son, Greg.

“After much drama amongst the Baron pets,” “Greg” wrote of who got chosen to pen this year’s letter, “it was not a pet who won … it was a human … OK, maybe I didn’t so much beat them as I bribed them with treats. They are sooooooo motivated by treats.”

Said Baron: “I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do next year.”

Joan Malkin, a retired lawyer, confesses that she writes her letter as much for herself as for her friends.

“It’s a chance for me to review my life,” said Malkin, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. “Have I done anything interesting, or has the year just gone by? In some way, my life revolves around my holiday letter. It’s an opportunity to take stock. Who am I this Dec. 31?”

While many letters are recitations of vacations taken and grade-school sports awards won, Susan Arnott and David Dobrin, of Cambridge, aim higher. They’re so particular about their annual missive that one year it wasn’t written and edited to satisfaction until June, and other years it hasn’t made it out at all.

“I’m trying to convey something about the essence of daily life,” said Dobrin, a technology consultant.

In 2010, their theme was “lengths.”

“I took up swimming,” Dobrin wrote. “Most mornings, I’d jump in the pool, peer out at the opposite gutter, 50 meters away, and cringe. … 2010 was that sort of a year. Try to get anywhere, it was a struggle.”

“A literary letter can make you pause and reflect on life,” said Arnott, a web designer, who edits her husband’s work. “It’s like reading a good book.”

While many writers think, rightly or wrongly, that their letter is the exception, the one letter that is not mocked, the truth is that if you write a letter, you’re vulnerable to “hate readers,” said Laura Zigman, a best-selling author and publicist for Happier , a Boston-based wellness company.

“You can’t win,” Zigman said. “If you are sharing good news, then you are bragging and causing other people psychological pain. If you are complaining, you are complaining.”

Letters, of course, aren’t the only holiday correspondence with the power to enrage. As the Kardashians and JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon have proved, the right photo can also do the job. At a time when many Americans are suffering financially, and Dimon’s bank has been involved in scandal, his holiday card shows him and his family batting around tennis balls in their opulent apartment. “Maddeningly Tone-Deaf,” Time magazine called it. “Looks like a Ralph Lauren advertisement,” added Quartz, the business news site.

Jenn Menn, a biblical counselor in Cambridge, isn’t worried that her letter will go viral, but even so the annual ritual — beloved by her husband — makes her cringe.

“When we wrote the first draft,” she said, “my part was four sentences and his was two pages about things that no one cares about. I didn’t say it, but that’s what was going through my mind.”

In the version she sends friends, Menn often hand writes little asides, like “yeah right” next to her husband’s line about buying “relatively cheap” tickets for Game Two of the World Series.

“The one thing I console myself with is that it’s an insert,” said Menn, author of the forthcoming counseling book, “Help Me Help My Child,” “They can throw it away.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.
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