Nearer to Spring: A Story of Christmas Lost and Found in Letters

The tongue is prone to lose the way,
Not so the pen, for in a letter
We have not better things to say,
But surely say them better.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Life, 1847


Letters come from a time when writing them was considered part of life. It was something you did as a matter of course. It was expected. “Write no matter how tired you are, no matter how inconvenient it is,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his son in 1917. For his part Roosevelt was one of the most prolific correspondents ever, pouring out more than 150,000 letters in his lifetime.

Letter writers were from all walks of life. Sigmund Freud devoted every Sunday afternoon to them. At 86, poet and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Donald Hall still writes about 5,000 a year. I send about 500.

Why bother with Christmas letters, notes, cards, and pictures sent through the mail? Thanks to the miracle of modern messaging, most people follow one another’s activities minute to minute all year long. They Facebook, tweet, blog, post and pin. In fact, why bother with Christmas? Isn’t it simply a commercial extravaganza? These questions caused me mounting despair, so much so that I briefly resolved to throw in the towel on many of my favorite traditions related to the holiday, including sending and saving cards.

Buried among boxes of old correspondence I intended to throw away, I found a faded copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Some pages were lost. Others torn. On the cover a worried pig stared at an acrobatic spider not unlike the one watching from the dusty windowsill in the garage where I worked.

In the foreword, writer Kate DiCamillo explains why the story is the best selling children’s book of all time. “…and things didn’t turn out well. But they also did turn out well. And that is the crux of the miracle of the book. Every word shows us how we can bear the triumphs and despairs, the wonders and heartbreaks, the small and large glories and tragedies of being here.”

At the outset, neither the milky winter sun nor the sharp fluorescent overhead lights were enough to dispel my gloomy determination to cast Christmas out. As I reread the story of Charlotte the spider, Wilbur the pig and Fern the young girl, something unexpected happened. I thought I was saying goodbye to Christmas — its memories, magic, and mail. It turned out to be hello — to faith that shone in unexpected ways from unexpected sources in unexpected places.

This book is my way of thanking card senders, letter writers and letter readers — a fraternity of scribblers whose correspondence wove a web as impressive as Charlotte’s. A web that rescued, amazed, and accompanied me. A web whose pattern helped make sense of the world, reminded me of events long past, and encouraged me to recognize the extraordinary beauty in ordinary lives.

It’s easy to disparage the whole writing business in an era where TLDR (too long, didn’t read) is a common response. There is another viewpoint. Essayist Phyllis Theroux wrote,

“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.”

Here’s a little piece of mine for you.

Published on behalf of Anne Ayers Koch, a writer in California who also happens to be my mom. This essay appears in her latest book of essays, Nearer to Spring, available now.

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