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Letters deliver annual tidings of joy, busyness

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Ann Burnett
Ann Burnett, director of North Dakota State University's women and gender studies program, is a collector of holiday letters. Burnett was photographed on the campus of NDSU in Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

Richard Holland's annual holiday letter is pretty standard from year to year: "Here's where we've been and what we've done. There will be something about the children and the grandchildren," said Holland, 66, who lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario with his wife. 

With only one exception, he has drafted and mailed an annual greeting for more than three decades. 

"There was one year I didn't do a letter," Holland said, remembering a time when he was between jobs for an extended stretch. 

His words are always contained to one side of one page of white paper. Palatino font. Text size fluctuates. "If it's been a busy year I'll use a font 11 or maybe 12," he said.

"It's a useful way to stay in touch," said Holland, who isn't active on social media and has friends and family all over the world.

Personal tidings from around the globe — including Holland's 2014 holiday letter — arrive in Fargo, North Dakota, each year where a communications professor eagerly receives them. 

Ann Burnett, who also directs the women and gender studies program at North Dakota State University, collects holiday letters and has for about 15 years and counting. 

The endeavor started as a research project for her students focused on the fast pace of life and relationships. She noticed a frequent use of the word "busy" in year-end letters and quickly settled on holiday letters as a project component. Burnett asked friends and colleagues for redacted copies of their Christmas letters. Over the years, word of her interest has spread and packets of letters arrive sporadically. 

Burnett plans to write a book about holiday letters and how they reflect a changing society — one that celebrates bragging and is increasingly inauthentic. She now has a filing cabinet filled with more than 2,000 letters, mostly from the United States, Canada and England. They're catalogued by year, beginning in the late 1970s.

Collection of holiday letters
Burnett has amassed a collection of more than 2,000 letters that date back several decades.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

"Dear Friends, Relatives, Colleagues, Enemies, Detractors

In the October of his seventy-sixth year, the author takes up his pen (read: "Opens up his computer") to indite (read: "type") a Christmas letter to his friends relatives, colleagues, enemies and detractors in a Christmas spirit of charity and forgiveness. 

This Christmas letter is now a habit with him. It serves to tell a lot to a lot of people. Since the author can no longer write letters to everyone, he must rely on photocopying machines. (Praise God for Kinko's)."

— Holiday letter, 2006

"These letters are little mini time capsules," Burnett said. "They are cultural artifacts worthy of study.

"I know what I'm reading is very precious to someone," she said. "Sometimes I do laugh." 

Other times, Burnett admits to simply shaking her head. 

Burnett said the archive is evidence of the rise of busyness. She's seeing words like "hectic," "whirlwind" and "frantic" — in addition to "busy" and "very busy" — show up more frequently in the letters. The notes tend to highlight personal achievement, showcase travel and describe major events, as writers anticipated Y2K or shared their reaction to Sept. 11, 2001.

"Remember the game you used to play as a child where someone would blindfold you and spin you around until you were incredibly dizzy? Then the blindfold would come off and you would stumble around the room trying to regain your balance. 

Well, that's the way I have felt all year - confused, dazed and stumbling from one day to the next. I don't know where the time goes, but it seems that I work hard all the time and never seem to accomplish anything. 

I guess this is the product of a full-time plus job and three kids in school."

— Holiday letter, 1999

But the year-end letter offers a more subtle purpose beyond simply a synopsis, she said.

"It's the end of the year and a time when people are looking back," she said. "It's really a chance to step back to reflect."

Holiday letters
The contents of the seasonal letter offer insights about lifestyle, priorities and much more.
Ann Arbor Miller / MPR News

"It's been a marvelous Century - filled with ups and downs, joys and sadness. That's what makes life interesting and helps us grow as individuals. We never thought we'd feel as full of life in the year 2000, much less even be alive. We look forward to all of the changes and challenges the millennium brings. We hope you do, too."

— Holiday letter, 2000

With the holiday season quickly peaking, Burnett said she's eager to expand her letter collection. "I always hope people won't toss them out."

Burnett welcomes holiday letters (the more the merrier) to her attention at:  Department No. 2310 P.O. Box 6050 Fargo, N.D. 58108