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Over a recent trip to the Sjostrom homestead, I sequestered myself in a storage room with a few boxes of keepsakes that had accumulated over the decades. Tucked among various newspaper clippings and Pinewood Derby trophies was a stack of yellowed pages that were both easy to miss and exactly what I’d been hoping to stumble upon: the full compendium of Sjostrom Family Christmas letters.

It might seem ridiculous today, but family Christmas letters were ubiquitous prior to the internet age. The populace at large didn’t receive minute-by-minute refreshers of your station in life as we do now; instead, once per year, the moms of the world would park themselves in front of a hulking desktop (or previously a typewriter) and punch up a list of the goings-on in their household. Every family member received one paragraph, four sentences to describe every good thing you’ve done or might possibly someday do. For families of modest means such as mine, these missives were an attempt at speaking our goals into existence.

Gearing up to read these letters, I suppose I was expecting a breezy speedrun through our family’s recent past, which they kind of were. There were a few greatest hits - my older brothers’ football exploits alongside my legendary Spelling Bee run of 1995 (I misspelled “anthracite” in the final, if you’re wondering), among many others. But what these letters revealed in the subtext was something a little more discomfiting: most of our dreams hadn’t worked out at all how we’d planned. 

On holly-jolly letterhead, I read glowing descriptions of career paths, romantic relationships and college majors that would fizzle out in the years to follow. Opportunities and endeavors that were once the source of great optimism - great enough to broadcast it to a pretty judgemental audience, if I'm being honest - would often dry up and die on the vine. “I hope you’ll visit my new small business,” my mom wrote one year, practically bursting to share the news. That new small business would eventually fold, a bone-deep bruise that Mom carries to this day.

This was the throughline of each letter, without exception; some of the short-term wins turned out to be less than rosy, while a good portion of the stated uncertainty would actually turn out well for us in the long run. And at the end of each edition, my mom would write some variation of the same refrain: “We’re grateful for all we have, and we wish the best for you in the new year.” 

Once I’d reached the end of the stack, I sat there for a good long while. I just stared at the letters, shocked and silent. It was odd — while the actual words in each alluded to missed opportunities and dreams deferred, they also made me feel strangely at peace. Because for all our failings and false starts over the years, we were still here, still united, still hoping. Still grateful.

As December begins, it’s hard not to think about those letters and what they represent. These next few weeks are always the most stressful in our household, and probably in yours, too. For those who contend with any of life’s many curveballs - health concerns, money woes, professional disappointments, etc. - the holidays can feel like an unnecessary reminder of what’s missing. I very much get that. 

But it’s also an opportunity to look at what we do have, imperfect as it might be, and believe that the best still might be ahead. That whatever has happened over the year that’s ending, next year is another bite of the apple. And that taken together, win or lose, the story told by those yellowing pages is still unfolding. 

I cling to that hope year after year. And after digging through the Sjostrom Christmas letter archive, I think I know where I get it from.

🎄Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year 🎄

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