Christmas cards survive the digital age

Published 7:15 am Friday, December 25, 2009

Ellis Jones extols a key merit of the Christmas card: This form of social networking doesn’t disappear into the digital ether like a Facebook update or an e-mail.

You can keep your letters as permanent records of the year’s high points and maybe pass them on to later generations as a historical record.

That’s what Janet and Ellis Jones of St. Peter have been doing for the past 50 years. The 2009 letter, gold-colored to commemorate the 50th edition, contains the same sort of anecdotes as the previous 49: Ellis continues to be active with the Minnesota Welsh Association and Kiwanis Club. Janet is recovering from multiple hip surgeries late in 2008. … Granddaughter Emily began her first teaching job at a school for the deaf in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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This would be the 51st letter, but none went out in 1976 because Janet, 76, had surgery that December.

Ellis, 78, will be the first to tell you this is unadorned, utilitarian writing.

“This isn’t a priceless piece of prose. It’s just, ‘That’s the way it is,’” he said. But the anecdotes in a Christmas letter somehow avoid feeling trite or parochial to Ellis. He likes reading other people’s letters. They make him feel like he’s part of their family, their lives.

Ellis, who taught economics and management at Gustavus Adolphus College for 40 years before retiring in 1998, experienced the ways technology has changed communication.

“Now, with the use of computers, we’re losing draft copies,” he said. Few people bother to print out e-mails or reread them after they’ve been sent.

That’s fine for the here and now, but people forget things they might have liked to remember.

David Jones, the couple’s son, said the old letters remind him about the TV shows he liked to watch, the toys he played with, the trips he went on.

According to the 1968 letter, David was 7 and liked playing with Matchbox cars. He also liked the frequent visits from the Tooth Fairy.

“It’s something that I definitely cherish to have that history,” David Jones said.

Ellis has a few conventions about the Christmas letter.

The letters avoid current events entirely except when they intercept the family. In 1998, when a tornado ripped through St. Peter, the letter notes their house “only” lost 20 windows in addition to the uprooted trees, shorn shingles and hole in the storage shed. None of the letters is longer than a single page.

Before Ellis begins writing them, he compares calendars with Janet to ensure they don’t miss anything important. Then Ellis writes a rough draft, and Janet makes corrections. As a professor, Ellis was a notorious stickler about spelling and so has a pretty good incentive to avoid mistakes in his letters, especially because there are former students on the mailing list.

Most of the letters are single spaced and divided into paragraphs according to person or event.

The couple apparently had a burst of creativity in the mid-’60s when the letters took the form of a poem (‘63), a newspaper (‘64 and ‘78), the shape of a Christmas tree (‘65) and an acrostic where the first letters in each line spell out Merry Christmas And Happy New Year (‘66).

Ellis says he’s heard so many people yearn for just one more conversation with a deceased relative. He and Janet hope their three grandchildren and their descendants don’t have to wonder idly about what was important to their ancestors.