The Christmas Letters

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In The Christmas Letters, three generations of women reveal their stories of love and marriage in the letters they write to family and friends during the holidays. It's a down-home Christmas story about tradition, family, and the shared experiences of women.

Here, in a letter of her own, Lee Smith explains how she was inspired to write this celebrated epistolary novel:

Dear Friends,

Like me, you probably get ...

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The Christmas Letters

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In The Christmas Letters, three generations of women reveal their stories of love and marriage in the letters they write to family and friends during the holidays. It's a down-home Christmas story about tradition, family, and the shared experiences of women.

Here, in a letter of her own, Lee Smith explains how she was inspired to write this celebrated epistolary novel:

Dear Friends,

Like me, you probably get Christmas letters every year. I read every word and save every letter. Because every Christmas letter is the story of a life, and what story can be more interesting than the story of our lives? Often, it is the story of an entire family. But you also have to read between the lines with Christmas letters. Sometimes, what is not said is even more important than what is on the page.

In The Christmas Letters, I have used this familiar format to illumine the lives, hopes, dreams, and disappointments of three generations of American women. Much of the story of The Christmas Letters is also told through shared recipes. As Mary, my favorite character, says, "I feel as if I have written out my life story in recipes! The Cool Whip and mushroom soup years, the hibachi and fondue period, then the quiche and crepes phase, and now it's these salsa years."

I wrote this little book for the same reason I write to my friends and relatives every holiday--Christmas letters give us a chance to remember and celebrate who we are.

With warmest greetings, Lee Smith

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's easier to believe in Santa Claus than in the premise of Smith's holiday novella. Employing the epistolary form that she used much more successfully in Fair and Tender Ladies, Smith provides a series of letters among three generations of women, aiming to create a record of a family's joys and tragedies, as well as a slice of social history from 1944 to 1996. Unfortunately, credibility is a casualty of the device, as we are asked to believe that close relatives living in neighboring Southern states would let a year go by without even the most basic communication about births, deaths and marriages. The letters recapitulate episodes that family members would surely have heard about before (one correspondent reminds her parents at great length about how she met her husband). In the era of telephones and cameras, it is highly unlikely that the informationboth intimate and picayunecontained in these detailed missives would have awaited a seasonal newsletter. Recipes passed down through the decades, beginning with boiled custard and ending with an African dish from a woman in the Peace Corps, are meant to indicate changing social mores. But nothing here can surmount the awkward format of a book that is, in fact, as bland as boiled custard. Author tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
One of our most accomplished authors scores again. As in Fair and Tender Ladies (LJ 9/15/88), Smith writes an epistolary, here in the form of Christmas greetings sent from North Carolina by female members of the Pickett family. In what they sayand don't saythese articulate, down-to-earth women preserve three generations of American experience. Birdie, a feisty World War II bride, records the challenges of leaving the farm to open a successful small business while raising a houseful of children. Birdie's oldest daughter, Mary, continues the story in the mid-Sixties, after dropping out of college to wed. She tracks 25 years of moves, from trailer to luxury home, from unexplained domesticity to problematic independence. Next, granddaughter Melanie picks up the tradition, hinting that the family writing talent will turn professional. The Picketts's joys, tragedies, recipes, and reflections make an affecting narrative that ends much too soon. Highly recommended.Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, Va.
Kirkus Reviews
With her typical easy wit and down-home charm, Smith (Saving Grace, 1995, etc.) fashions an epistolary novella from that most infamous of genres, the annual family letter that often arrives in Christmas cards.

The three generations of Christmas letters in Smith's genial narrative span 50 years, and evolve as dramatically as their means of reproduction, from crude carbon copies to mimeograph to Xeroxes—from the personal to the word-processed. Each letter records the significant events of the year before, beginning in 1944, when Birdie Pickett writes home to West Virginia about her marriage, her first child, and the loneliness she feels in North Carolina, where she lives with her in-laws while her new husband serves in the South Pacific. Later letters chronicle his return home, his effort to run the family farm, the destruction of the farm in a flood, and the opening of a dime store in town. Birdie's terse epistles always end with a recipe, such as "Mrs. Goodwillie's Bible Cake," with its ingredients taken from Scripture. In 1967, Birdie's daughter Mary resumes the family narrative and documents her own transition from trailer-park bride to suburban matron, with four kids, a fancy house, and membership in the local country club. All of this falls apart, and in 1993, Mary writes the first "real" Christmas letter, one that doesn't hide the truth; her narrative includes her feelings about (among other things) her recent messy divorce, her brother's tragic return from Vietnam, her husband's history of infidelity, and her oldest son's homosexuality. A single letter from Mary's daughter Melanie (in the present) includes her own efforts to research family history, which is what the past has now become—fodder for her planned novel.

A clever idea that finds its own suitable length: Smith's short novel leaves so much unsaid, as befits the semi-public epistolary genre, but manages to reflect change in humble matters, even in something so simple as a recipe. A delight.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565123762
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 8/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 136
  • Sales rank: 812,405
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in the small coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, Lee Smith began writing stories at the age of nine and selling them for a nickel apiece. Since then, she has written seventeen works of fiction, including Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History, and, most recently, Guests on Earth. She has received many awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature and an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; her novel The Last Girls was a New York Times bestseller as well as winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with her husband, the writer Hal Crowther. Visit her at

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Read an Excerpt

A Shoebox of a Home

So I want everybody out there to know that I am fine, happy as can be in this little aqua shoebox of a home with my baby Andrew. We are so busy in here that it is very difficult right now for me to even imagine any other world outside these four walls.

I watch Vietnam on television of course, and often think of you, Joe, but honestly it is hard for me to concentrate too long or to believe that the war is actually real and not just another show on television. I know that's awful, but it's true. Somehow I believe it would seem more real to me if it wasn't on television all the time. Honestly, my imagination has failed me on this. I'm so glad you will be home soon.

But, Joe, I do wish you would write, at least to me. I'm sure you are hearing this from all of us, so do it! Make copies and send one to everybody, like I am doing here. I'm sure the Army has got a mimeograph machine someplace! By the way, it is hard for me to believe you scarcely know Sandy yet. Somehow I think that all the people I love, love each other as much as I love them, and I forget that you all have hardly met.

Well, I will quit running on and on and tell you now about Sandy's and my first Christmas dinner together (yesterday). It was a riot! We had a baked hen which barely fit in my oven (I am trying, Mama!) and oyster casserole which did not work out because I used smoked oysters instead of the real other kind which I guess you are supposed to use. (I had bought these flat square little cans of oysters at the Piggly Wiggly, they were very expensive and blew my whole food budget for the week, but I thought you had to have oyster casserole on Christmas, Mama. I thought it was the law!)

Well, it looked okay, the cracker crumbs having formed a nice golden crust just the way they are supposed to, but the minute I bit into it, I knew something was the matter. But Sandy did not even know the difference because he had never tasted oysters before anyway. Luckily, Sandy will eat anything, and he thought it was delicious! We ate Christmas dinner on the floor-on our aqua shag carpet, that is!-since we don't have a table yet (though Sandy is going to build us one soon, he can build anything, if he can get off from work long enough to do it) while Andrew slept on his blanket right beside us.

And when we got up to do the dishes, we saw it had started to snow! So we bundled poor little sleepy Andrew up in that red snowsuit you sent, Mama, and took him out in his first snowfall ever, which was coming down so thick and fast at first that we couldn't even see beyond our little row of trailers, to the street.

The streetlight made a perfect cone of light, full of whirling flakes, as we stood beneath it and stuck our tongues out to catch the flakes and tried to make Andrew stick his tongue out, too. How sweet and cold those snowflakes were, melting on our tongues, I will never forget it.

And then before we knew it, everybody from the other trailers had come out too, and we met neighbors we had never even seen before! Such as a crazy old lady named Miss Pike, who wears the most makeup you have ever seen and used to teach singing lessons, opera I believe, and a fat little man named Leonard Dodd who described himself as an "inventor" (though I don't know what he invents), and another man named Gerald Ruffin who looked very aristocratic, but wore a plaid robe and red velvet bedroom shoes and was drunk as a lord. Somebody whispered that he used to be a lawyer but had fallen on hard times. He was in politics, too. He is from one of the most prominent families in the state. I guess he must be the black sheep of that family! We all talked about the snow, and passed around some of the fudge you sent, Mama, and then the Teeter sisters had us in for coffee. You have never seen as much junk as they have squeezed into their trailer-they call it "brick-a-brack." It covers every surface that is not already covered by a doily. All their coffee cups were made of flowery bone china, with gold rims. Gerald Ruffin's hands were shaking so much that his cup rattled on his saucer like a castanet. Well, I could go on and on. . . . Anyway, I don't know whether it was that coffee or pure excitement; but I couldn't sleep a wink all night long. I lay snuggled up to Sandy like a spoon in a drawer and listened to Andrew make his snuffly little sounds in sleep, and peeped out the porthole window at my portion of the sky, which was full of whirling flakes, no two alike in the universe, and thought about my baby, and my husband, and Daddy, and all of you, and my heart was full to bursting.

Merry Christmas and love from your very poor but very happy,

Mary Copeland

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2002

    I liked it -

    Is it 'outstanding'? - probably not. I do think it was well worth my reading time, and I am a very selective reader. It's a family story written by way of Christmas letters to family members and friends. It's definately a book you can spend a nice winter afternoon enjoying. Very easy reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2013

    Nice easy read.

    Ms. Smith is a gifted storyteller.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2013

    Pretty good

    Nice quick read....not the best but it was ok

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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