Wednesday 18th July 2018

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The Christmas Letter: A Gift Of Love

December 25, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


For sixteen years, I taught seminars in literature, composition, history, and Latin to homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Students attended one or more of these two-hour seminars every week, and then returned home with anywhere from four to seven hours of work, depending on the particular class in which they were enrolled.
Our focus in the literature and composition seminars was the essay. The students wrote prodigiously, and I in turn graded prodigiously, sixty to eighty papers, journals, and reports every week. This labor-intensive approach was grueling for both students and teacher, but paid big benefits, annually creating a crew of fine young writers.
Occasionally, we took a break from the essay, writing instead a short story or poem, or a piece of impressionistic prose. Of these exercises, the most meaningful was the Christmas letter.
The week before our Christmas break, I would enter the classroom on Monday bearing a box stuffed with envelopes, Christmas stamps, and a supply of blank and lined sheets of paper. Over the next four days, with the exception of the Latin classes, I would ask the students of these various seminars to take a piece of the paper — their choice of blank or lined — and using their best composition skills, write a thank-you letter to someone who had helped shape their lives for the good.
“You can write a parent or parents,” I’d say. “You can write a sibling, your grandparents, an aunt or uncle, your Scoutmaster, a coach, your pastor, a favorite teacher. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you share with them what they have meant to you. Use specific examples of ways they’ve helped you. Show them — don’t just tell them — how important they are in your life. You have a chance to give a great gift to someone for the cost of a piece of paper, an envelope, and a stamp, so let’s write.”
As they finished, and after I’d helped some of them find the addresses for their recipients either by a phone call home or by looking online, the students would fold their letters, place them inside the envelopes, and seal them. At the end of the last class on Thursday, I would drive to the Post Office, where I would shove about 120 Christmas letters into the mailing slot.
Some parameters applied to this letter writing. First, I forbade the students to write to me or to their friends. (Several had written classmates the first two years we tried this idea, and had turned the exercise into a joke.) I promised I would deliver the letters unread and sealed to the Post Office. Finally, I instructed the students to ask as they were writing if they had questions about spelling or points of grammar.
This exercise provided a moment of learning for many of the students, especially for those who had rarely written a letter on paper. Some of them addressed their envelopes upside-down. Others knew nothing of tri-folding letters. In every class, two or three young people left the recipient’s name off the envelope, or put the street address, city, and state all on the same line. As I collected the letters, I would take a moment with the student to correct such mistakes.
So we learned how to write and send a letter.
But this exercise offered a much greater lesson.
In writing their Christmas letters, the students discovered the incredible power of words set down on paper in truth and gratitude because of the responses they received from those to whom they wrote: the eighth-grade boy whose teary grandfather had called his daughter, the boy’s mother, to tell her this letter was the greatest gift he could have received for this particular Christmas; the tough-minded coach who told me the letters of two students had made his Christmas come alive; the lonely aunt who had opened her letter on Christmas morning per the instructions her niece had penned on the envelope and who had wept for joy that on this day of the year someone had told her how much she was loved.
The students also learned what appreciation means to adults. Unlike young people, who receive trophies merely for participation, who are praised just for making an effort, and whose failures are often brushed aside by parents anxious to boost their children’s self-esteem, most adults are rarely the beneficiaries of frequent praise.
The mother who daily rises at dawn, feeds and clothes half-a-dozen children, drives them hither and yon to various activities, cleans house, prepares suppers, gives baths and reads books to the little ones at bedtime, and who may on top of all these duties work a part-time job, is rarely applauded by any audience other than her husband.
That husband, who knocks himself out every day trying to keep his family in bed and board, whose boss’ idea of praise is, “Good job, now try harder to get the Smitherman account,” who comes home whipped from work but lends a hand with washing the dishes and plunking children into bed, receives praise as scant as that given his wife.
For that husband or that wife, to open a letter from a child expressing gratitude and love is an event.
Finally, the students, at least the ones who put themselves heart and soul into this project, learned that the best gifts don’t necessarily arrive in boxes and wrapping paper. They learned there is a better present than some electronic gadget bought at Best Buy, jewelry or sports equipment from Amazon, skiing trips or dollar bills.
They learned that the best present is love.
And surely this is the greatest lesson of Christmas itself. After all, what lies at the heart of Christmas if not love? We celebrate Christmas because on this day human beings received the greatest of all gifts: the Father who made the ultimate sacrifice and sent His Son to redeem us from a dark world, that Baby in a manger who split human history in two, who was born, lived, and died for us. That newborn was, in a sense, a living love letter sent from heaven promising us grace, hope, and eternal life.
Unlike so many other Christians, whose Christmas comes to a screeching halt on December 25, we Catholics are just starting the party. Some of us celebrate Christmas from Christ’s Nativity to the Feast of the Epiphany, while others extend the revelry all the way through Candlemas. Whatever the case, the Church encourages us to rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ, to thank God for His love letter from Heaven.
Christmastide also seems the perfect time to express our gratitude to those whom we love and treasure. So if you wish, you have plenty of time to write a Christmas letter of your own. I encourage you to do so. Your words may brighten a moment, transform sadness into joy, or deepen your fellowship with a friend.
Who knows? You may even bring fire and beauty to a soul in darkness.

Tips For Writing
A Letter Of Love

Go the old-fashioned route. Use the USPS instead of your email. These days, a personal note arriving in the mail is in itself a rarity and already a gift.
Unless your script is atrocious, compose the letter by hand. The reader will better feel your personality and your thoughts through your written words.
Show, don’t just tell, the recipients why you are grateful they are a part of your life. Relate some specific incident that reveals your gratitude.
Anyone in your life is eligible for such a letter. Do you tell your wife every day you love her? Wonderful! But a letter, a piece of paper bearing your words of warm affection, perhaps accompanied by flowers or her favorite chocolate, is special. It’s an event, a celebration.
If you have children old enough to write such letters, include them in the project. Make a party of it. Pour some hot chocolate or hot cider, distribute the paper, pens and pencils, and envelopes, and let them go to it. (Even for younger kids, a letter is an option: You take dictation and write down their thoughts.)
For men in particular: No need to worry about getting all sticky and sentimental. Unless it’s to your wife or sweetheart, or maybe your mother, just tell the ones you are writing you are grateful and glad for their presence.

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