Letter from Felixstowe: The Dreaded Christmas Letter, Part 2 AC (After Clive) or, Separated by a Common Language, or Maybe Just a Comma

Tomahtoh Tamaydoh

Living with a Brit changed everything for me about doing an annual Christmas letter.

The process had previously been straightforward, as described in last week’s post. The focus was simply on content: review the year’s events, decide what to include, type a draft in a Word document, tweak it a bit and print out copies. The process took about an hour, maybe two.

It now goes something like this:

Content – the first step

Clive had never done an annual newsletter before he met me. We agreed from the beginning that we wanted to keep our content positive – not over-the-top, falsely cheerful but not full of personal concerns or issues, of which we have as many as everyone else. We’re a blended family so one of our main objectives is to give more or less ‘equal time’ to each of our families. This has never been a cause of disagreement between us but presents a challenge from the standpoint that we’re both sensitive as to what exactly is included.

Format – newsletter designed by Clive

In our first December together, Clive sat down at his computer one evening and rather quickly created a draft newspaper format. I loved the way he laid out text and photos — so much better and more reader-friendly than the plain Word document I’d always done. We received compliments about it and have continued with that format each year. It’s time-consuming as we first discuss where different text and photos should be placed and then Clive has to fiddle endlessly with margins and spacing to make everything line up.

Photos – but none of us together

Clive on a Suffolk coastal path (photo taken by me)

Clive on a Suffolk coastal path (photo taken by me)

We came to a rather sad realisation this year after trawling through 12 months of photos. We had hundreds of us with various family members and/or individual shots we’ve taken of each other but not one of just the two of us. Goal for 2015: learn how to take a decent couples selfie.

The real fun begins

Having agreed basic content, format and photos, I now thank George Bernard Shaw for the quotation attributed to him, ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’

Language (and spelling)

Because we live in the UK, we agreed we’ll use UK spelling in our letter: colours, centre, organisation. That’s easy enough.

Language and usage cause problems, starting with ‘holiday’ which, in the UK (and Australia) is the equivalent of U.S. ‘vacation’. Clive says ‘Merry Christmas’ while I’m used to ‘Happy Holidays’ encompassing the entire season and everything from Thanksgiving to Hanukkah to Christmas to New Year’s. But a holiday letter is not a vacation letter.

In a sentence about how we hope to see more sights within the UK, Clive insists on ‘further afield’ while I lobby for ‘farther afield’. Our debates on topics like this inevitably lead to dictionary research online and off-line, quotation of various experts to each other, and heavy sighs.

And what about ‘that’ — to me a clutter word most of the time, to Clive an important clarification word. In the first sentence under ‘Content’ above, ‘Clive and I agreed from the beginning that we wanted to keep our content positive’ I would delete ‘that’ while he would keep it.

Then there’s accuracy vs. reader-friendliness. My son’s in Washington, DC. Clive reminds me the BBC refers to ‘our correspondent in Washington’ so we can simply say ‘Washington’ too. I have friends in the U.S. state of Washington so we use ‘Washington, DC’.

The U.S. capital - Washington, DC

The U.S. capital – Washington, DC

Commas, the Oxford comma, overuse of commas and so forth

What is there to say about commas other than we disagree on many of them? Clive uses fewer than I do. By the time we get to the final review and umpteenth draft print-out of our letter, we’re almost – but not quite – too weary to debate about commas. We do debate but then compromise in different sections of the letter – a comma inserted here, one deleted there — and declare it done.

Printing – oh dear

We are not done after all!

The A4-size letter may fit beautifully on the printed page, but I email softcopy of our letter, with a personal note, to U.S. family and friends. The first year I did this, many replied, ‘Great letter but it didn’t print out quite right.’

Aargh! Clive’s final — and most aggravation-causing — task, bless him, is to re-jig the letter to fit U.S. ‘letter’ size paper. This is never a pleasant activity. It requires endless tinkering with margins and text/photo placement, during which time Clive emits a continuous low-volume but just loud-enough so I can hear his irritated mutter about lack of global standards around paper sizes and the U.S. being the only country we know of that uses ‘letter’ size. He eventually gets the U.S. version all neatly lined up and finally, finally — we are truly finished. In the midst of everything else going on in December, this usually occurs a day or two or three after we began.

And that, my friends, is why meeting Clive caused a seismic shift (and multiple controversies) in my once-simple family Christmas letter process.

It’s still worth it to me. I still love receiving these letters from family and friends and, having saved our own letter each year, love having them to look back upon. Like paper or digital photo albums, together they form a kind of family history – births, deaths, the arc of different family members’ lives. If you’ve thought about writing a letter each year, I encourage you to try it. Ultimately it’s a worthwhile exercise, even if you don’t send it out or you and your spouse aren’t separated by a common language.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

Together on the Felixstowe Prom, December 2014 (photo taken by a friend)

Together on the Felixstowe Prom, December 2014 (photo taken by a friend)

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be on Christmas Day from Felixstowe.

6 Responses

  1. So many differences in grammar punctuation, spelling, units (what on earth are ‘cups’ of flour), but so many things that bind us together.
    Merry Christmas Carolyn and Clive

  2. Now I know 🙂 I can just imagine how it was/is for you and Clive, how frustrating It sounds Which English to use , spelling and who uses what, i.e.. Merry Christmas or Happy holidays ..this I am with Clive on, as that is what we are celebrating., . but Washington , I am with you . I would use Washington D.C. as that is the name. .

    I have never written an annual “letter” either not even when I lived abroad , wouldn’t have a clue where to start .. ! Spouse and I might not be separated by language but we are by a few other things …Letter writing for one,. I don’t think in 20 years he has written a letter . .He used to write to me 🙂 🙂 how cute and I still have them!

    I have to ask. What is a “vacation” letter? .. Do you write these too?

    Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year / Happy Holidays.! Take care and enjoy. Xx

  3. I had to go back and read the link “living with a Brit” and noticed Clive said about “t” in the middle of a word , sounding like a “d” I noticed that in the picture at the beginning ..!! I can understand him 🙂 🙂

  4. John, lovely thoughts – thank you.

    We were just discussing ‘cups’ of things the other day, which led to further discussion/debate/analysis, this time over the word ‘baking’ – endless!

    A very merry Christmas to you and Elizabeth.

  5. Anne, your comment makes me smile — exactly my point about ‘holiday’ — when I first mentioned ‘holiday letter’ Clive asked me much the same question. I guess a vacation letter would be literally just that – a letter (email!?) sent to someone when you are on vacation.

    I try to say ‘buTTer’ instead of ‘budder’ — still working on my t’s 🙂

    Cheers and happy Christmas. (I love that expression,) xx

  6. […] not sure if this is an(other) instance of being separated by a common language or perhaps a generational preference, or maybe a combination of the two. If I see the gentleman […]

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