December 14, 2007

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

The lesson buried in a boastful Christmas letter

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, raw pride nipping on your prose. Stunning feats being sung in a card and kids dressed up like dynamos.

The “Christmas Song” we compose in the annual family letter can sound awfully sour compared with the lyrics that Nat King Cole crooned.

In our modern rendition, the “eyes all aglow” belong to proud parents, not tiny tots. And those reindeer really know how to fly; they made the Honor Roll.

I’m as guilty as you. We roll our eyes at the boastful letters, then roll up our sleeves, racking our brains for the year’s most impressive accomplishments. We wrap them in muscular language, trying to recall the active verbs of resume rhetoric like “execute” and “implement.”

Whenever possible, we reference ranks: Captain, Senior Consultant, Most Valuable, Best in Class.

To back it up, we quote from a panel of experts: the teacher, the coach, the priest, the principal, the boss.

Then we quantify our success: winning first place in soccer, scoring a 33 on the ACT, shaving two minutes off a run, taking a 10-day trip to seven countries, overseeing 20 employees.

In the end, our attempt to update friends reads more like a request for a job promotion.

Of course, it’s hard to avoid some of these techniques. They help us fill a blank page in comprehensible terms.

But on a deeper level, this holiday custom provides us with a unique opportunity for self-inventory. How we sum up a year can be incredibly telling—if you read between the lines.

When my mom asked me to write my portion of our family Christmas letter, I made note of the notables. Easy enough. Then I read through it, surprised to discover that the entire paragraph pertained to my education and career. The lingering questions being: Do I have friends? Hobbies? A life outside work?

It was a reality check. I’m reworking the paragraph—and the lifestyle.

Our achievement-centric society takes hold at a young age. By the time you finish your schooling, there’s pressure to not just begin a career, but to excel at it, to quickly earn the kind of accolades for which Christmas letters are notorious.

But the measurements we find handy and acceptable are often faulty. And the feats we deem admirable and important are often meaningless. In the scheme of things, that is.

Because the scheme is incredibly broad, spanning back to a baby born two millennia ago. His arrival did not involve a new Lexus or an upscale bed and breakfast. Just a bumpy donkey ride and a dusty manger. He did not go on to be voted Most Popular. Truth is, he was kind of a loner, befriending lepers and defending an adulteress.

Jesus didn’t see the Pharisees for their status and power; he saw their hypocrisy. He never paraded virtue; he prayed in private. He took no stock in society’s arbitrary metrics and he made that known.

St. Peter wrote, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Pt 3:8).

Our only true judge couldn’t care less about our rung on the corporate ladder. Rather, he asks us to be good and faithful servants, to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger in our midst.

This December, as bonuses are awarded and progress is chronicled on holly berry stationery, remember this: What really counts cannot be counted.

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. E-mail her at

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