Bah Humbug to the Christmas round robin
23:54 GMT, 3 December 2012
We asked the teacher if there were any areas of weakness with Melanie, and she said: ‘No. You have given me a little diamond and all I have to do is polish it.’
Aaargh! The annual round robin season has begun. You open an innocent-looking Christmas card and out fall several pages of a computer-written missive about talented children, wonderful holidays, new conservatories and dazzling success at work.
There is no pity. These people lead faultless lives and they insist that you know it.
The boasting season: It's that time of the year when an innocent-looking Christmas card reveals several pages of computer-written missive about talented children, wonderful holidays and dazzling success at work
I’ve been collecting these round robins for years, and by now I have read thousands. The most cringe-making appear in my book.
Some are less horrible than others. But many induce a boundless rage in the recipients. People send them on to me with covering letters, such as this: ‘I met this man once, at a conference in Derby 24 years ago. I have never met his wife nor any of his brilliant children. I have never replied to his letters, yet he sends them every year.’
One woman was so infuriated by news of dazzling A-levels she ripped the letter into tiny pieces before realising that wasn’t enough. She decided the senders had to be punished by seeing their words in print. She stuck it all together with sticky tape — it must have taken hours — then sent it to me.
A family in North London gets an annual letter from a farmer in Scotland that combines dreary details about fatstock prices with smug preening.
So they add comments, such as ‘This is incredibly boring’ or ‘What a stupid thing to boast about!’, then wait until one of the family visits another city before posting it back, so the sender never knows which of his victims is retaliating.
But if you send round robins and want to protect yourself against recipient rage, there is help at hand. A website called The Middle Class Handbook is offering advice on how to write a round robin so the people who get them don’t implode with fury.
Sinking feeling: Boastful Christmas cards can make for cringe-making reading
Most of their advice is sound: be modest, self-deprecating, use humour. Don’t say anything such as this (all my examples are from real letters, though with changed names): ‘My ears ringing with praise for Jake from his parent-teacher meeting, I got home to find Emily opening a letter saying she had won a place at Oxford.’
Or: ‘We had a fleeting, but memorable breakfast at Heathrow as Isobel flew out and Holly flew in. Memorable because we had with us, unopened by order, Holly’s GCSE results: five As and five A*s.
‘Celebrating at Heathrow is not our usual style, but we managed pretty well!’
What you never read about these incredibly gifted children is what happens later.
Somehow, no one writes five years later that Holly — with her first-class degree — is out of work, but has applied for a job at Burger King.
The Middle Class Handbook people suggest modesty, and they’re right.
The fact that your son is the most brilliant young man since Einstein was a lad is a source of amazement and delight to you, but not to your friends.
Just say something like: ‘Tom was relieved to get the grades he needed for university’ or ‘Charlotte enjoys her work at HyperBank, but the 6am start is pretty difficult!’
The Middle Class Handbook people also recommend a mixture of good and bad news.
That sometimes works, but if you slide the news that you’re about to get divorced between your fabulous holiday in the Maldives and your daughter’s new pony, you look as if you have no sense of proportion.
And a perky tone in the face of bad news can seem heartless: ‘After a long illness which she bore with little complaint, my Mum died in November. We are now proud owners of a drop-leaf dining table. Any offers’
It’s tough getting it right. So, if you must send a round robin, here’s my advice.
First, don’t send out too many. It’s easy these days to hit ‘print’ 100 times on your computer screen.
Middle Class Handbook people suggest modesty, not bragging about things like your child's recent graduation
But few of us have 100 friends, and our closest, plus neighbours and family, probably have all your news already.
Sending them to the people who lived down your parents’ street 30 years ago and whom you haven’t met since will only make them cross.
Second, not too much detail. There is one man who sends a 16-page booklet every year in which he gives a minute-by-minute account of his holidays — including how it rained while he and his wife were having lunch, how the owner of the gite was late in bringing the bed linen round and that he paid three euros to park, while nearby it was only two euros.
The fact that he could remember this trivia is bewildering; the notion that he thinks other people might be interested is just bizarre.
I’m afraid to say we’re not remotely interested in the fact that you bought a new vacuum cleaner in March.
Nor do we drop our toast and marmalade in surprised delight when we read: ‘During this time and in the ensuing months, we converted the cesspit into a septic tank.’
Third, not too many names.
Tom and Jean spent a few days in Frome with Theresa and later Tom stayed with Anne, then went to Leicester and spent a week with Carrie . . . Pete has continued to visit Conrad daily. We were joined by Theresa and Duncan, Anne, Justin and two of his boys, and Terry and Anita . . . we missed John and Hettie as they had been held up.
‘We got back to the hospital to see Conrad, but he had died.’
Who cares We don’t know these people, have no idea how they fit into the writer’s life and resent the assumption that we should spend precious seconds reading about them.
Fourth, not too many disasters. People don’t always realise that as well as the endless boasting, some round robin writers subject you to endless moaning.
If a trouble shared is a trouble halved, they believe sending it to 100 people reduces it by 99 per cent.
One of the longest letters I’ve ever been sent consisted of more than 2,000 words of pure misery.
The poor fellow had endless operations, all lengthily described. The last, a hip op, went wrong.
Pet peeve: Resist the temptation to write your Christmas card as if it was from your cat or your dog
His wife trapped her foot in a car door. Their son fell off a porch and broke his wrist. The car broke down and the repairs were expensive.
Nothing in their year was too trivial to record. They went up in the London Eye, but it was raining so they couldn’t see anything. Fitters spilled oil on their daughter’s new carpet.
Just when you think that their pit of misery must be full to the brim, he ends: ‘Mr Snugglekins, our cat, has kept us on our toes. He has learned how to open the door of our new large fridge.’
A final nightmare: owning a cat that can help itself!
And while we’re on pets, resist the temptation to write as if it was from your cat or your dog.
Either you write from the pet’s point of view, filling the letter with nonsense about the annoying cat next door, which is boring and embarrassing.
Or you have it giving a ridiculous commentary on your own life, like this, weirdly supposed to be written by a mole in the family garden: ‘David, the one I call The Son, has deferred his second year of engineering. He says geo-technics is not his favourite area; he prefers urban development.’
Another family sent their annual letter from their cat — and didn’t stop even after the cat died.
Finally, keep religion out of it. You may see your letter as a perfect chance to spread your religious views, but many of your readers will find it toe-curling.
Take, for example, the family who had a long holiday in the Far East: ‘God kept us safe in all our travelling and our health, and the real sense of His hand was upon us in all our journey.’
Fine, except that they were away during one of those Filipino ferry disasters in which more than 100 people died.
Even the most committed Christian would probably not imagine that God was too busy keeping a watchful eye on round robin writers to look after those poor passengers.
Simon Hoggart's The Christmas Letters (Atlantic, 7.99).