The holidays are a time of turning to traditions that symbolize our love and connection to our families, friends, communities, earth, and the divine. With the pragmatism characteristic of Americans, many of us have made holiday card sending into a vehicle for mailing yearly catch-up letters. These letters allow us to perform the task of keeping in touch efficiently. Though full of news about family member’s achievements, honors, and chosen hobbies, the letters don’t usually reach their audiences on the deeper emotional and spiritual levels we want during the holidays. Giving from the heart requires more than a good news report.
I believe that writing a letter that uses the how-to form of personal essay writing will help in the creation of meaningful holiday letters.
In the how-to form, an author describes something she knows how to do that others she cares about might like to read about or learn how to do.
The opening paragraphs of the letter will describe what this process is and why it is important to the author. Years ago now, Virginia Harding, an attendee in one of my workshops, wrote such a letter in which she described a ritual her family with six children performed each winter harvesting persimmon fruit and making pudding. The fruit itself seemed to be about the transformation and glory of the season, she wrote, because it changed the yard into a “gallery of color” in winter. It was a visual gift and also a nourishing gift, inviting animal and human activity as squirrels, robins, bluejays, mockingbirds, opossums, and people pecked at, ate and collected the ripe fruit.
Virginia wrote that she hadn’t harvested persimmons and made pudding for 10 years and no longer lived in Palo Alto, CA where the trees had grown in her backyard. But writing about the ritual and the fruit, she noticed an ad in her local Northwest paper about a market offering persimmons. She hurried in each day for three days only to find the fruit hadn’t arrived and the manager had no idea why. She decided to substitute pear pulp with lemon saying in her letter, “But so what? Christmas without the family persimmon harvesting isn’t the same either,” she mused. “The important thing is that the spirit around here is as strong as ever.”
Writing about the process led Virginia to that epiphany, one she may not have articulated if she wasn’t writing about the process of gathering persimmons for the ritual of making persimmon Christmas pudding.
Of course, Virginia included her recipe for persimmon pudding in her letter. Shse sent the letter to her friends and family, and also to the editor of Messages From the Heart, a literary journal from Tucson, Arizona (no longer in print). In the publication, the editor added a note below Virginia’s piece, which read, “Believing that a letter is a gift from the heart, Virginia Harding wrote ‘A Holiday Gift’ about a special tradition and sent it with the recipe above as her holiday message of love and good wishes for friends and family.”
Whether you know how penguins raise their young or how to make your great-grandmother’s potpourri, when you write it down in the form of a letter for others, you will see that an epiphany arrives — one that will delight you and your letter’s readers.