By Judith Hooper

You know this type of holiday letter. You've received it, read it, and cringed. "Little Jenny worked so hard preparing for the Peyton County beauty pageant—she won!—that she fell a bit behind in the gifted program. But the French nanny we hired is a gem; Brock can now chat with the maître d' at La Maison des Prétentieux!" To keep such letters from denting our holiday spirit, my family and select friends make a point of collecting and trading them like baseball cards. The best ones, we read aloud—though I doubt if any will ever top the classic from years ago that, in the middle of a chirpy catalog of the family's activities, slipped in the news that Grandfather had accidentally (and fatally) set himself on fire in his hospital bed.

Some unwritten rules seem to guide the crafting of these letters. An omniscient third-person narrator is popular, suggesting that the family hired an itinerant biographer who happened by in late November. Boasting, early and often, about kids, home renovations, and big purchases is required, with some writers making valiant attempts to justify the latter ("the new white Rolls Royce turned out to be a blessing in disguise"—though, alas, the scribe left out the really crucial part: how?). Exhaustive descriptions of expensive vacations come with useful "insights" (and plenty of exclamation marks): "Venice is such a romantic city!" "The Taj Mahal was really spectacular!"

In these holiday missives, the lives of others are impeccably well ordered. Careers advance like clockwork. Children glide from triumph to triumph. Goals are achieved with nary a bead of sweat. But occasionally a letter arrives with a higher reality quotient, with actual news about people I know and love, and the challenges they overcome or don't. I think of the Oklahoma family whose dream of owning a chain of truck stops was always being undermined by calamity. One year, the father suffered a heart attack; the next, a son filed for bankruptcy; the next, there was a tornado and more bad health. It was evident that their truck stop empire would probably elude them, but they went on believing. And after a year in which my own life had borne its share of hardship and frustration—a painful breakup, a discouraging job, a mysterious illness—reading about their faith, still unshaken, helped renew mine.

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