Holiday Letters – Then and Now

During the last few years of my mother’s life, one of the most important set of tasks on her year-end to-do list was to be sure that the Christmas letter was dictated, formatted, and photocopied; that “the list” was as up-to-date as possible; and that festive holiday stamps were purchased for the mass mailing. In the 20 Mom Dad Beach with Santayears or so leading up to this time period when those tasks often fell to me, she had undertaken the project from the Florida home she and my Dad had retired to, and a festive beach picture often accompanied the newsy update on family activities. These missives helped Mom keep up with far-flung friends—women and men from phases of her life including childhood, college, work years, and retirement.

Mom wasn’t always quite so organized about it all, though.

As I shared in this space last year about this time, every holiday season of my childhood involved an intricate photo shoot to create the picture that would be included in the holiday cards sent from the Miller family. The photo was always ready for inclusion in the cards by early December, I think. But often the cards didn’t go out for weeks after that—I’m sure many of them arrived at their destination after the beginning of the new year.

Why? Because in this time before easy photocopying (let alone before electronic means of sharing information!), Mom still wanted to keep her friends informed about the goings-on in the Miller household. I clearly remember her sitting in our living room late at night after a long day of work and then a longer evening taking care of daughters’ needs, scribbling notes onto individual Christmas cards. Now, mind you, with my Mom’s abysmal handwriting, I question whether the news in all of the notes was easily deciphered upon receipt, but she was adamant about including notes on the cards sent to those she loved.

So Mom was undoubtedly happy with the advent of the ubiquitous Holiday Letter. These letters are often regarded with derision – some see them as boring minutiae (“Johnny continued his participation in competitive snowboarding, handbell choir, cupcake decorating, and collecting first editions of Dr. Seuss books”) or as bragging (“Maude was so surprised to be honored yet again for her high grades, perfect attendance, and science fair project!”). But others view them as a way to remain connected with friends and colleagues in an increasing scattered world. I must admit, I’m in the second camp – especially as many of the letters I receive are both informative and cleverly written and presented.

I had always thought, though, that these letters were a thing that started in the 1980s and 1990s, when photocopying was increasingly available to the general public. Before that, there were cards and sometimes photos, but no compendia of family activity during the years.

I was wrong.

For as I worked my way through University of Missouri archives of the women journalists I study, I found a file labeled “Jurneys’ Jurnals.” This file was not, as one might expect, in the papers of Dorothy Jurney, the woman known as the Godmother of the Women’s Pages, but in the papers of her colleague and close friend, Marie Anderson.2014-09-11 10.52.23

Jurneys’ Jurnals were professionally created 4 page newspapers, complete with a masthead, headlines, photos and cut lines, and cartoons. Each had a publication date of December 25, and the copies Marie saved were from 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, and 1955. All of these Jurnal editions were issued from Miami (the weather in several of the mastheads noted “Yule be Warm”) but had been published from other locales in earlier years. As the front page story from 1950 notes:

Ten years ago today the Jurneys sent their Christmas greetings in the first Jurneys’ Jurnal. Those wishes have grown and mellowed with the years, until today when we say to you, “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,” we not only say it with ten times more meaning but we are sending it to ten times as many friends, garnered along the highways and byways of ten years of living. Ten years ago that first Jurneys’ Jurnal was issued in Gary, Ind., just four months after our marriage. As we did then, we’ll review the year’s happenings in the Jurney family because we’re hoping in turn you’ll write us about yourselves.

And review the years’ happenings they did. The Jurnals covered moves, work, and travel adventures. Though Dorothy and Frank had no children, they detailed marriages and births in the extended Jurney clan. And they did so with fine writing and editing and amazing newspaper production standards.

I’m not sure how long the Jurnals continued. Certainly not into the 1960s, as the Jurney marriage ended in a permanent separation in 1959. But for at least 15 years, Dorothy and Frank sent out a holiday update that would put writers 30 years hence to shame.

In the era of Facebook, the holiday letter has lost some of its popularity. After seeing the details of friends’ lives in our newsfeeds, we probably wouldn’t learn all that much from a year-end summary. And keeping up with real-life addresses doesn’t happen as much in our virtual world. But as I’ve perused Jurneys’ Jurnals and thought about the Miller family cards and letters, I know I’ll value every missive that arrives in my mailbox.

So if you’re one of my friends who continues the tradition of letters and cards, keep ‘em coming. And happy holidays!

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable. 

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