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The Christmas Letters

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This heartwarming story of three generations of Christmas letter writers is about family tradition, family love, family strength—the perfect story to give at Christmas, and to read yourself.

Birdie Pickett, her daughter Mary, and her granddaughter Melanie are all storytellers at heart. Their letters—folded inside their Christmas cards—tend to be long ones because they write to explain their lives as much to themselves as to far-flung family and friends.

Birdie writes the first one in 1944: “It is the day before Christmas and though I know I should be so happy with my own sweet angel baby Mary who lies right here beside me as I write this letter, I will tell you the truth. I am weepy, and cannot hold back my tears.” Birdie’s new husband, Bill Pickett, is fighting World War II in the Pacific, having left his wife and baby in his parents’ care. “Well,” writes Birdie, “it is the other way around, if you ask me.”

Much of the story is also told through shared recipes. As Mary 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 crêpes phase, and now it’s these salsa years.”

Melanie photocopies her first Christmas letter in 1996 and shares her big news: “I’ve started a novel…luckily, Mom saved all of Grandma’s letters.”

In these vivid, familiar, gossipy letters, Lee Smith’s skill at capturing women’s voices renders the “clash of generations”—heard here at very close range—as the music of our ever-evolving American family life. It’s the perfect music to listen to at Christmastime.

126 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1996

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About the author

Lee Smith

42 books895 followers
Growing up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia, nine-year-old Lee Smith was already writing--and selling, for a nickel apiece--stories about her neighbors in the coal boomtown of Grundy and the nearby isolated "hollers." Since 1968, she has published eleven novels, as well as three collections of short stories, and has received many writing awards.

The sense of place infusing her novels reveals her insight into and empathy for the people and culture of Appalachia. Lee Smith was born in 1944 in Grundy, Virginia, a small coal-mining town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not 10 miles from the Kentucky border. The Smith home sat on Main Street, and the Levisa River ran just behind it. Her mother, Virginia, was a college graduate who had come to Grundy to teach school.

Her father, Ernest, a native of the area, operated a dime store. And it was in that store that Smith's training as a writer began. Through a peephole in the ceiling of the store, Smith would watch and listen to the shoppers, paying close attention to the details of how they talked and dressed and what they said.

"I didn't know any writers," Smith says, "[but] I grew up in the midst of people just talking and talking and talking and telling these stories. My Uncle Vern, who was in the legislature, was a famous storyteller, as were others, including my dad. It was very local. I mean, my mother could make a story out of anything; she'd go to the grocery store and come home with a story."

Smith describes herself as a "deeply weird" child. She was an insatiable reader. When she was 9 or 10, she wrote her first story, about Adlai Stevenson and Jane Russell heading out west together to become Mormons--and embodying the very same themes, Smith says, that concern her even today. "You know, religion and flight, staying in one place or not staying, containment or flight--and religion." From Lee Smith's official website.

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5 stars
340 (17%)
4 stars
631 (33%)
3 stars
705 (37%)
2 stars
183 (9%)
1 star
40 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 258 reviews
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,714 followers
December 30, 2018
3.5 stars

I read my first Lee Smith novel, Fair and Tender Ladies, this past spring, and it will top my list of favorite books for 2018. I quickly ordered three more of her books, which are sitting on my shelves rather impatiently waiting their turn to come around. In the meantime, I was given this lovely little novella in a Snow Queen gift exchange – what could be better?! A new favorite author and a Christmas book all wrapped up in one shiny package! This was perfect for the busy holiday season, as it is written as a series of letters across three generations of mothers and daughters spanning the years 1944-1996. I could easily slip in a letter between shopping, baking, and concerts.

I have to note, however, that this is not a ‘Christmas’ book in the sense that the holiday is not really actively described; rather, these are the letters that each woman wrote to their family and friends around the Christmas season. Most of us are familiar with these type of letters tucked inside some of our Christmas cards – updating us on what has been going on in the lives of our intimate friends and family members over the past year. Each has a very chatty feel to them, much like you would expect to hear if you really sat down with these women and had a nice cup of tea while sitting by the fire. They express the joys of new babies, the feeling of inexplicable loneliness which may follow childbirth, grief over the deaths of loved ones, the excitement of moving to new homes, the aftermath of war and other tragedy, the busyness of raising active children and teens, as well as both the delights and insecurities of married life.

"I have time now to wonder, and think on everything, and I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, but if-‘ or ‘If only-‘ as it has struck me that our whole lives may be so determined, in the twinkling of an eye."

Included with each letter is a special recipe that the writer has shared with her friends and family. I found a few I’d like to try, in particular the peanut butter fudge and the taco salad. I’ll steer clear of the rumaki, however, noting the first ingredient as being chicken livers. Not really my thing. I’ll probably pass on the Bible Cake as well "courtesy of Mrs. Eugenia Goodwillie at church, who is fat as can be, and always wears this bright green hat." I can just imagine Mrs. Goodwillie!
I thought this was a fun little book to read. It gives just a hint of what can be expected from Lee Smith’s writing, although in full length novel form she really shines! I would recommend this to those who already enjoy her writing, not necessarily as an introduction. I would point you straight to Fair and Tender Ladies for that.

"As a child, I thought adults were, by definition, wiser than we were – now I realize that they were just older, and that wisdom is not something that will descend upon us at a certain age, that it will not descend upon us at all, in fact."
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,796 reviews2,388 followers
December 1, 2017

”Those were hard times, I reckon, but they seem sweet to me now, and almost golden somehow, as seen through the haze of the years.”

The Christmas Letters is a charming epistolary novel, which shares the stories, and even some recipes, annually, through the voices of three generations of women. It begins with a Christmas letter written Christmas Eve of 1944, a young wife, young mother of an infant, teary-eyed as she writes to her mother from the attic room of her in-law’s home, with her husband off fighting in the war, missing the only place she knows in her heart as home, and her own family.

She lists all the reasons she has to be grateful, but knows that, at the moment it pales in comparison to what her heart wants: to be home.

Traditions, family, hopes and dreams and broken dreams, as well make their way into these letters. Weddings and other milestones, and then when years pass, so do some of the people. So many changes through the years, you can see how even the recipes change as the years pass, and even though none are MasterChef worthy, they each represent a place and time. The stories change, as well, as time passes, as people move into “cities” and more of life’s progresses are made available to them. Television, cars, eventually computers make their way into daily living – and then we can’t imagine living without them.

A little over a year ago, I read Lee Smith’s ‘Dimestore: A Writer’s Life’ , which I really enjoyed. I loved the way she made me feel like I was back there in her hometown with her, sitting on her front porch and watching the world go round. This was somewhat like reading ‘Dimestore,’ in that there is a sense of connection, an appreciation of home, traditions and family that connects them both at their essence.

This is a book to mellow you into the holiday spirit, regardless of what holiday you celebrate, even if you are more inclined to Bah-Humbug your way to the end of the year.

”Families! You wonder how any of us survive them, don’t you? But we do.”

Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!
Profile Image for Cyndi.
2,338 reviews100 followers
December 24, 2017
I’ve included a letter in my Christmas cards for years. One year I heard somewhere that most people think Christmas letters are lame and old fashioned so I didn’t write one to slip into the cards. What an uproar! All my family and friends asked where the updates were. So that just goes to show that Christmas letters are timeless and people want to know what your family is up to.
The letters in this book trace the lives of three women through their yearly Christmas missives. I loved it! There was laughter and tears with everything in between. Its a story of love and the strength found in women.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,298 reviews450 followers
December 22, 2016
I thought I had read all of Lee Smith's books, but this little novella esscaped me somehow. Not really a Christmas story at all, but a story of three women and their families revealed through a yearly letter to get the rest of the family up to speed. I have been reading some odds and ends and essays and short stories lately, because this time of year is busy and fragmented, so this little book fit in nicely.
564 reviews28 followers
December 16, 2016
I don't usually read a "Christmas" story, but I ran across this one in one of my daily special e-mails and decided to give it a try. I'm glad it was a novella (only 88 pages) because I don't think I could have handled much more. It is a short story depicting annual Christmas letters sent to relative and friends and covers 3 generations continuing the tradition.

I am familiar with Christmas letters wherein you hear of the year's celebrations and news of family and friends who are separated from you by miles. It is like a year-in-a-glance moment. However, these ladies took the year's events to a higher level and divulged way too much information and personal drama. I kept thinking that much of what was captured on paper was better transported over telephone wires and not for everyone's ears. On a positive note, I think the story would have come across much better as a 350-450 page book that walked you through the lives of these three women. They did, in fact, have stories to tell, obstacles to cross and lessons to be learned. I just think the concept of relaying their trials and tribulations in the form of a Christmas letter felt a bit out of place.
Profile Image for Sterlingcindysu.
1,392 reviews51 followers
November 13, 2019
Every year my cousin in Quebec writes a Christmas letter, complete with links, photos and music bits. I always thank him for it and he's honest enough to say the main reason why he does it is so *he* remembers what happened.

But...as is clear in this book and also from the ones I've received in the past--the ones written by women? There's much more between the lines. The cousin reports things clearly but not so much when a mother is writing.

It's always great when you read a book (especially a small book like this) and you realize something you've known all along--how there's the surface of a Christmas letter and then the underneath tensions.

Starting in 1944 until the 1990s, the reader can follow the progress also through the production of the letter (written to email) and the receipes.

Loved how the whining and demanding mother-in-law lived so long!
Profile Image for Ann☕.
303 reviews
November 30, 2019
This isn't really a Christmas themed novella but instead a snapshot of two generations through their annual family holiday letters. (I am not counting the third generation, as there was only one letter written from that time period followed by the book ending astonishingly abruptly.) I usually love epistolary novels and I did appreciate the every day slice-of-life stories the author was trying to convey. From a realistic perspective, Mary, who represents the second generation, divulged way too much personal information about a specific event. I cannot imagine someone writing a letter like that and mailing it off to extended family and acquaintances. Still, overall it was enjoyable to read, especially since I am not into sappy holiday novels. I stand by my opinion that Lee Smith is an often overlooked author who had a lot to say about American culture.

Rating: 3 stars
Other books by this author I'd recommend: Dimestore: A Writer's Life
Profile Image for Staci.
1,403 reviews20 followers
January 1, 2011
This book started out great, told in the fashion of Christmas letters that spanned three generations. I really liked Birdie Pickett and the letters that she wrote to family members. It was a great glimpse into days gone by from 1944 and through to the early 1960's. Then Mary, her daughter, took over. I liked her letters too, until the last two years where I thought she got way too personal for a Christmas letter. Forget the third generation as this daughter only wrote one letter. I think the author should've stopped with Mary if she wasn't going to develop Melanie's character...really, why bother? Anyway, if you enjoy reading Christmas letters with the added bonus of recipes then you may enjoy this one.
Profile Image for MichelleG.
397 reviews96 followers
December 3, 2015
Lee Smith's story - The Christmas letters is a collection of letters from 3 generations of women, the story is fascinating in a way. It takes you through their lives, traditions and turmoils. The book is paced in a way that you grow with the family and feel you are living it right there with them.

My mother, and grandmother before her, have always written Christmas letters, and now I think I am beginning to understand why. There is something beautiful in sharing that little bit of yourself (and those you love) at Christmas.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,814 reviews343 followers
December 28, 2015
A multi-generational saga told through some of the annual Christmas letters written to friends/family from 1944-1996.

It begins with a letter from Birdie, a new bride with her husband serving in the Pacific during WW2. Over the years the family grows and eventually her daughter, Mary, takes over the letter-writing. Ultimately Mary’s daughter completes the saga. Each letter has a recipe at the end, which is somewhat indicative of the time frame.

I was bored for much of this, and saw several of the events coming. But at least it was a quick read (just a couple of hours).
Profile Image for Jennifer Brown.
2,314 reviews48 followers
October 11, 2020
I don't think I'm really the targeted audience for this book. It was well written and easy to get through, it just wasn't very interesting.
Profile Image for Ann.
781 reviews
December 22, 2018
A story about a Southern family, told through the letters of 3 generations of women, written from 1944 to 1996. It’s a short book and you only look in on very small pieces of their lives over the years but I felt like I got to know the characters quite well and they seemed very real to me. It had me thinking about my own mother and grandmother and how the opportunity for women to make different choices and lead different lives has changed over the years.
Profile Image for Erica.
379 reviews9 followers
December 21, 2020
The beginning was good, but when the daughter started writing letters there was language and the trying to be modern and accepting of living together, affairs and LBGT.
Profile Image for Yaaresse.
2,044 reviews16 followers
April 13, 2018
This is not a Christmas story the way the title might suggest to baby boomers. It is a series of letters written by three generations of mothers-daughters between the years 1945 to 1996. The letters began as a way for a lonely, homesick war bride living with her in-laws in North Carolina to let her West Virginia family know how she was dealing with life as a new mother. In later years, the letters became more like the mass-sent end-of-year newsletter common in the latter half of the 20th century. (Maybe it still common. I don't know. My family barely sent holiday cards, and I can't imagine any of them producing chatty "what we did this year" missives.) The Christmas Lettersis a short book, about 90 pages. There are not letters for every year, so it is a fast read.

I like the concept of storytelling through letters, but it does--or should--have inherent restrictions. The letters should read like something someone truly would write and freely divulge to the intended audience. The book started out holding to this form, and I do think the first letters from the 1940s and 1950s were believable. Unfortunately, when the second generation took over the letters, I found the premise fell apart, especially when the "perfect" life fell apart. There was just too much in those letters that most people wouldn't send to such a wide audience that the format unraveled. I also felt the characters lacked depth and toward the end represented cliches: the middle aged divorcee who returns to college and "finds" her feminist side, the gay artist son, the man with the mid-life crisis who marries the much younger trophy wife, etc.

It's just not Lee Smith's best work, and I can't recommend it. Guests on Earth was much better plot and writing.
Profile Image for Carla Hostetter.
600 reviews4 followers
November 26, 2012
I always enjoy the work of Lee Smith. This short novella telling the story of three generations of women through their Christmas letters is a very fast read and yet it encompasses all their life experiences. What is not said is as important as what is. In the end some family secrets are revealed, like the cheating husband, no surprise really, but others do astound. All women have been in these situations, making the best of things. We can relate.
122 reviews3 followers
December 10, 2021
I enjoyed reading The Christmas Letters which I found through a recommendation by a friend. I like to devote December to reading Christmas themed books and this one has proven to be a joy. Letters written through three generations from 1994 to the 1990s. We read annual Christmas letters to family initially from a young woman living away from her family with her in-laws and baby daughter whilst her husband is in New Guinea during WWII. Her daughter's letters take over sharing her life stories each Christmas and finally the grandaughter writing her very first Christmas letter to family and friends. I enjoyed this different style of writing in the form of letters although they are only one-way with no replies. It reminded me of my mother and grandmother. Recently my cousin sent me some letters written by my grandmother to my mother when she was in hospital after my brother was born. Such touching words which I cherish from a woman I never met, and one I lost way to early. I sometimes wish we still took the time to write letters and post them rather then shooting off a quick email which seems less personal.
Profile Image for Debbie Hauser.
75 reviews2 followers
April 3, 2021
I was browsing at my local library and saw this. I enjoyed Lee Smiths book,“Dimestore“ and so I thought I would pick this up. Although the book is titled “ The Christmas letters” it is really a good novella for any time. Just in case though, I read it using some of my leftover peppermint mocha coffee. I do love her storytelling.
Profile Image for Denise Spicer.
Author 13 books62 followers
January 1, 2019
Birdie, Mary, and Melanie write Christmas letters from 1944-1996. The author presents fifty years in a fictitious American family. Sadly flat characters, stereotypes, and NOT MUCH about Christmas at all, mar the experience.

Profile Image for Greta.
863 reviews4 followers
December 27, 2019
The Christmas Letters by Lee Smith is full of heart. Now that fewer people send Christmas cards and write letters, this collection is interesting. Who knew so much could be said in an occasional holiday letter? Just right for me after a lovely Christmas day with daughter, Lauren, and family.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,866 reviews295 followers
January 1, 2020
The story of the lives of three generations of women as told through their Christmas letters. The women go through times where they feel hopeless and hopeful, sad and happy, discouraged and inspired. It’s an ideal book to read for the holidays.
Profile Image for The Literature Ladies.
196 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2020
THE CHRISTMAS LETTERS by Lee Smith is a delightful novella composed of letters written by three generations of women to their families over the holidays. It’s a story of love, faith, family, and hope. It was exactly what a Christmas book should be – sweet and uplifting.

Read more on our blog!
Profile Image for Susan.
1,460 reviews28 followers
December 6, 2019
This enjoyable novella looks at the tradition of one Southern family’s Christmas letters and shows what can and can’t be read between the lines.
Profile Image for Linda Klager.
778 reviews41 followers
December 15, 2018
There were 3 different generations of women writing letters during Christmas. I enjoyed the one about Birdie very much - the other 2 not so much.
Profile Image for La.
221 reviews5 followers
December 15, 2018
This sweet novella was my gift to me - a quick heartwarming seasonal read to kick off my Cristmas-ing! I wept at the end just because it was over. Now I'm all warm and fuzxy inside, and ready to do a little decorating over the weekend.
Profile Image for Zoomers.
12 reviews
December 8, 2021
It was a quick and interesting read with great flow from the Mother to Daughter's lives through letters, but the granddaughter only had one letter and then the ending was kinds of abrupt.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 258 reviews

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