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Published December 25, 2010, 12:00 AM

Truths behind holiday letters

An NDSU professor says a lot can be learned from yearly notes
Most people read Christmas letters to find out who got married or who went on a cruise that year.

By: Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, INFORUM

Most people read Christmas letters to find out who got married or who went on a cruise that year.

But Ann Burnett, a communication professor at North Dakota State University, looks for deeper meaning.

She has been researching Christmas letters for more than a decade and has amassed a collection of about 1,200 letters from around the country.

It started in 1999 when Burnett was reading some Christmas letters before teaching a graduate class in interpersonal communication.

“I thought, ‘Man, there’s some good interpersonal stuff in these letters. I think I’m going to start collecting them and see what we can do with them,’ ” Burnett recalled.

The first year, Burnett and her students studied the letters to see how people wrote about the fast pace of life.

Many letter-writers talk about how busy they are or how time has flown.

“Nobody says, ‘We’re sitting around on our duffs not doing anything. We’re bored and depressed,’ ” Burnett said. “Everyone’s busy. Even retirees are busy.”

Burnett is looking at 2009 holiday letters from around the country to see if people are writing about the economic downturn.

“My original guess was probably not,” Burnett said, “because in a holiday letter, you want to be positive and joyful and happy.”

But about a fourth of the letters she’s looked at so far mention economic struggles, such as job losses, the tough real estate market or college graduates moving back home.

Another fourth don’t mention the economy at all.

Yet about half describe all the things people spent their money on that year – from finishing their fifth bedroom to taking trips to Mexico or China.

“Is there an economic problem? You read these, and they’re going all over the place,” Burnett said. “Is the economy really in that bad of shape? Or, because it’s a holiday letter, they feel like they need to report all the good stuff and not the bad stuff?”

Burnett started her research using Christmas letters she received and some others gave her.

After her work was featured in the Wall Street Journal, Burnett began getting letters from across the country.

She’s surprised at how often people include too much detail about their illnesses. One in the batch she’s studying now reports on a relative’s annual colonoscopy.

Others letter-writers attempt to be creative or clever, but often come off as bizarre.

One man sent her letters in which he writes from the perspective of his stuffed dog and cat. Another opened with the line “We’ve got spirit, yes we do. We’ve got spirit, not swine flu.”

“Maybe you have to know people, but they think they’re funny,” Burnett said.

Burnett also worked with graduate student Becky DeGreeff and NDSU associate professor Dennis Cooley to study how “authentic” people are according to a theory from the philosopher Martin Heidegger. The paper was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Cooley, who teaches in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, said few people wrote authentic letters, and most were lists of how busy people are.

Next, Burnett wants to study the Christmas letters to see how motherhood is described.

Burnett laughs when asked if she sends out Christmas letters.

“I just can’t bring myself to write any more,” Burnett said. “Sometimes my daughter writes them, and I don’t even read them. I just say, ‘I’m sure it’s fine. Just send it out.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590