The holiday letter is easily dissed as corny, boring or intrusive, but for some of us, it's the only way to keep in touch. "When you're talking to...

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The holiday letter is easily dissed as corny, boring or intrusive, but for some of us, it’s the only way to keep in touch.

“When you’re talking to people once a year and sending a Christmas letter, these things shouldn’t be painful to read,” says Lisa Howard, creator of

She was inspired to create the site after reading what she deemed a horrible letter. “The folks who wrote it just wrote about every bad thing that happened to them through the year,” she says.

Howard says she understands people sometimes have bad news, but the one thing this “incredibly awful” letter noted about the family’s trip to Disneyland, for instance, was that one of them got the flu.

A Christmas letter should be casual and fun, says Howard.

“It should just sound like you’re telling folks about your year,” she says. “You don’t have to make up big words, and you don’t have to elaborate on it. It should just sound like you’re talking to your best friends.”

A good letter is conversational, she says.

Make that photo snappy

Many people supplement a holiday letter with a family photo. Here are a few tips to make the pictures shine:

Look good. You can all dress the same for dramatic impact, but don’t go crazy on the busy, red holiday sweaters.

Focus on faces. Especially if the pictures will be small — for instance, wallet size — zoom in on faces.

Think about the background. Make sure a telephone pole or tree isn’t growing out of someone’s head. Frame the people in your photo tightly unless you’re trying to show off the new house or something else in the background.

Include pets. They’re cute.

Good light helps tremendously. If possible, take the photo outdoors, especially in the early morning or late afternoon, when the light is nice.

Get creative. Have a convertible or a boat? Squeeze everyone in and have someone take your picture. Or go to the beach (a classic) or another favorite spot. And you can always be funny in your photo.

Take lots of pictures. Don’t quit after one or two. Try different poses and settings.

“I hate it when people say, ‘my lovely wife’ and ‘my wonderful son.’ Like, how many people really use adjectives like that in front of the words ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ in normal conversation? Do you really say ‘my well-dressed husband?’ Nobody talks like that. Please come down to Earth.”

Julia Lee Dulfer doesn’t send holiday cards, but she gets lots of chatty Christmas letters, and she understands why people send them.

“You can run them off in big batches,” she says. Holiday stationery and computer labels make the job even easier. Some people ditch paper altogether and send a mass e-mail.

As a professional writer and editor, she’d like to see a more creative approach.

“I like the idea of writing a Christmas letter,” Dulfer says, “but it could maybe be more of an essay or thoughts or feelings, and maybe put it in the form of a letter.”

Such holiday musings may outshine the usual résumé of yearly accomplishments, she says. To get out of the letter routine, some people write in rhyme. Others do top 10 lists or write from the point of view of the dog. A handwritten sign-off warms up those cold copies.

Newsy letters can be amusing if they’re written with a sense of humor, Howard says.

She loves getting Christmas letters from a friend who always has a fresh approach. One year, for instance, the letter included multiple-choice questions whose answers were nearly always “all of the above” and really funny, Howard says.

“I look forward to it,” she says. “If she ever stops sending that Christmas letter, I will just be devastated.”

Pictures can add a lot to a letter or even substitute for the usual chit-chat.

“I love adding pictures to my letters,” Howard says. ” … If you can’t write, just have lots of pictures. Don’t try to say, ‘My lovely wife and I won 10 awards and went to Europe.’ “