This week I got my first Christmas letter of the season. It was written by a dog. His name was Bowser, and he signed the letter with a paw print. Apparently, Bowser had written the letter while holding the pen in his mouth. I could tell because there were little ink dribbles all over the page.
At least I hope they were ink.
I have received letters from Bowser before. Every Christmas, in fact, Bowser writes to describe the nice things that have happened to his parents during the last year. In Bowser’s mind, his “parents” are an investment banker and a structural engineer. Every year, Bowser encloses a snapshot of them along with his letter. Bowser is usually in the picture too. It is easy to pick him out. He is the one with the dead bird in his mouth.
In his letter this year, Bowser described his parents’ 10-day trip to Tuscany, their new matching Lexuses, and the herb garden they have added on the shady side of their house. I cannot imagine why any of these developments gives Bowser any particular pleasure. The last time his parents went on a trip to Europe, Bowser went to the clinic and had his balls cut out. When Bowser rides in a Lexus, he rides in the trunk. The last time he got into his parents’ oregano bed, he had to have his stomach pumped.
This is not the sort of thing I want to hear about at Christmas, especially from a golden retriever whom I have never met. I am not certain, when I receive Bowser’s letter, if I am expected to write him a letter back. I am not precisely certain what sort of news a 3-year-old, castrated golden retriever really wants to hear. I am not certain whether I am supposed to send him a gift. The only dog I know particularly well is a toy poodle named Mitzi. Her parents own a gift shop and carry her around in a shopping bag from Bergdorf-Goodman. I am not certain Mitzi is the right dog to ask.
I am not quite certain, in fact, what to do with anyone’s Christmas letter. I am not quite sure how I am supposed to reply to my friends Carlton and Florissa, whose letter is written by their 4-year-old daughter, Maxine. Maxine writes her Christmas letters in crayon and decorates them with shiny gold stick-on stars. Honestly, I cannot say that what Maxine does is precisely writing. At the bottom of each color-Xeroxed letter, Florissa usually writes something like, “Our new house. M. drew this, all by herself. Great, huh?”
At such moments, I find myself sorely pressed for an appropriate response. At least, in Bowser’s letter I can make out the part about the trip to Tuscany. I have thought about suggesting that, when Maxine writes next year’s Christmas letter, she might try holding her crayons in her mouth.
I am, of course, grateful for any sort of well-intentioned Christmas wishes, even if they come from a 4-year-oldeven if they come from a dog. I recognize that people of my acquaintance frequently live busy and exciting lives. I understand that they are proud of their toddlers and of their bird-eating dogs.
I understand that, in their wide-ranging, eclectic lives, there are many people with whom they want to share their accomplishments, their joys, their heartwarming personal milestones. They expect those persons to respond by return mail, chronicling their new car purchases, enclosing no-fail recipes for marinara, providing paint chips from the newly redecorated living room.
On the other hand, I do not understand why my friend Edna chose last Christmas as the time to share with me the details of her hysterectomy. “I am writing this to you,” Edna said, “not to depress you but to let you know that you are a cherished, unique part of my life.” Edna’s letter was photocopied on green construction-paper stationery. It was sealed with a stick-on smiley face wearing a Santa cap. It had been sent by bulk mail.
I envisioned grown men and women all over America reading Edna’s letter and thinking, “You know, this could have been one of those cards with Frosty the Snowman on it. I wouldn’t have minded that so much. Frosty never made me want to jump off a bridge.”
I figure they longed for the days before there was Kinko’s, before there were no-lick labels, the days before it was all right if the mail carrier went ahead and delivered the intimate details of your life to “Or Current Occupant.” I figure they remembered when you had to go to a hell of a lot of trouble if you wanted to tell 575 people about your surgery, your divorce settlement, or your kid the Scientologist. I figure they wished that those times had never really gone away.
I have the feeling, after all, that there is only so much a person needs to know at Christmas. Most of it fits on a Frosty the Snowman card, and most of it can be written a few hundred times, at a stretch, before your wrist gives out. It boils down to, “Had some surgery. Doing fine,” or, “You should see Maxine. Growing like a weed,” or, “Bowser had his balls out. You don’t want to know the details.”
In short, it does not boil down to anything you really want to hear from a golden retriever. It has nothing to do with new matching cars, a trip to Tuscany, or a bunch of herbs growing on the side of a house. Mostly, it boils down to “Let’s talk some time. We need to have a chat.” It is not a message that 575 people would ever reply to, since it does not change all that much from year to year. Although there is nothing particularly original about it, it is not a message that a great many people have any right to hear.