How to Write the Perfect Holiday Letter They’ll Actually Read

Loved by some and reviled by others, the family holiday letter is the fruitcake of holiday mail. Perhaps it’s just because I’m from a generation who shares 24/7/365, but I believe that there’s something heartfelt about reaching out once a year to reconnect and share highlights of your household's important events.

However, that’s not to say that every family holiday letter is a gem or that it should be treated as a no-holds-barred opportunity to #humblebrag for pages on end. While recapping annual anecdotes mixed with well-wishes can be a lovely tradition, the family holiday letter can quickly cross into over-share territory or just plain ol’ poor manners.

We combed through articles by etiquette expert Emily Post to help you compose a family letter that’s worthy of a place on the mantle. Here are our Dos and Don’ts to craft an end-of-year missive that shines:

DO Know Who to Send Your Holiday Letter To

Most family holiday letters begin with “Dear Family and Friends”—as that’s exactly who they should be sent to! When deciding on recipients for your family holiday letter, be discerning between the personal and professional contacts on your list, and only send to those you think will be interested. That means neither your accountant nor boss need an update on your kid’s winning softball season or your family trip to the Grand Canyon.

But, that isn’t to say that there aren’t some long-term professional contacts with whom you’ve become friends. The Golden Rule? If you’d be interested in reading up on what’s happened in someone else’s year, go ahead and add them to your personal contact list.

DON’T Include a Play-by-Play of Every Day

A general rule of thumb is to keep your family holiday letter down to a single, succinct page. But, a whole lot happens in a year, so where does one even begin?

Go for highlights! Scan your Facebook updates or blog posts for noteworthy events—being sure to include information about each family member. Share stories and anecdotes that you would tell a friend you haven’t seen in awhile over coffee. Additionally, if you had an experience that really made an impact on you, this is the perfect space to share it.

DO Stick to the Facts

It’s okay to be proud of your family member’s accomplishments but focus on the big picture, not the nitty gritty. Emily Post points out that to strike the perfect note of straightforwardness—and avoid sounding boastful—it’s best to stick to the facts instead of your projections of them.

For example, it’s great to mention that your son is really enjoying Tae Kwon Do class, as opposed to stating that he’s the best out of all the students. Alternatively, it’s great to mention that your daughter was accepted into her choice university, but not to disclose the exact scores on her SATs.

DON’T Forget to Add Visuals

While your holiday letter is sure to include at least one picture, don’t be shy about packing in additional images! Not only will they make your letter look better, but photos help illustrate the stories and highlights that you’ve taken the time to share—as well as showing how much family members have grown and changed over the past year.

And don’t stop at family photos, either. Concert tickets, postcards from places you traveled—they all represent special memories and create a bit more variety than yet another picture of you and the kids mugging for the camera.

DO Get Creative in Your Composition

One route you might take? Ask each family member to contribute a short anecdote, such as a list of five things they’d like to share about the past year. You can also create a puzzle, word search, or even a multiple choice quiz.

Also, don’t shy away from formatting with bullet points. Break things up into short paragraphs (this is easier to read), and, again, try to keep your updates to a page, two pages max. If your Family Letter reads more like a chapter book, you probably want to do a serious edit. Here are a few other ways to get creative:

  • Name Acrostic: Use the letters of your family name to tell about your year. 
  • Family News: Let everyone be a journalist and write an article for your newspaper. 
  • Top 10 List: Your list might include the year's best family events, funny sayings or moments to remember. 
  • Family Firsts: Record anything from your child's first words to your family's first trip to Wisconsin. 
  • Family Statists: Give people a snapshot of your year through numbers. Be creative! How many soccer games did your kids play? How many gallons of ice cream did your family eat?

Still stumped on how to best compose your holiday letter? Try one of these templates to hit the perfect tone:

  • The Story: What was the most interesting thing that happened to your family this year? Whether funny, touching, or poignant, share one story that struck a chord with your family (making sure it includes every family member). Bonus points for showing restraint and leaving out other updates.
  • The Lesson: If you could boil your family’s year down to a single word, what would it be: Fulfilling? Adventurous? Enlightening? Share with your recipients how different experiences contributed to an overall feeling shared by everyone in your household, finishing with thoughts about your hopes for next year.

DON’T Be a Drag

As tempting as it may be to use this letter to vent, avoid it at all costs. Airing grievances about a former spouse or a co-worker might seem okay since they won't be receiving the letter, but news, especially bad news, travels fast. It's best to stick to positive things.

If you feel it’s important to let people know about some of the less fortunate things that happened over the year, that’s fine. Just keep it brief and consider countering it with positive news like how far you’ve come with your goals. Just look back on your progress-related notes (maybe you’ve been working on fitness, saving, or job goals) and see how far you’ve come.

DO Include Well-Wishes For Your Recipients

Beyond sharing your own family's highlights, the main purpose of every annual holiday letter is to express your good wishes to others, along with a bit of holiday cheer. So, it’s ironic that, in most holiday letters, this section is the briefest part, tucked away down at the very end.

Instead of struggling with salutations and listing out every achievement, at the heart of every great family holiday letter should be a thoughtful—perhaps even personal—message of well-wishing for each recipient.

Finally, DON’T Forget to Edit!

The most important things you can do before you print copies and stuff envelopes are to proofread, edit, and repeat. Consider having another family member read the letter or putting it aside overnight and reading with fresh eyes the next day, that way you'll avoid misspelling someone's name or leaving out an important event from the year.

Don’t have a second set of eyes handy? Try either Ginger’s Grammar Checker or Grammarly—both of which offer free trial periods—to ensure all your punctuation is in place.

Do you have any tips for writing a great family holiday letter? Share them in the comments below!

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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