In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Suess lists the non-essential trimmings of the holidays: “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” But it didn’t come without cards, letters, texts, tweets, or emails. Christmas would lose something essential if the flow of communication should cease. In my opinion, the addition of digital media has added new dimensions to the ways we reach out to each other, especially at this time of year.
If you have held on to some close friends from grade school years, it is because you have made a conscious effort to keep in touch. Every time we moved I knew I was leaving people I may never see again. I started letter-writing in earnest when we left Iran after seventh grade. My correspondence blossomed in the following years, through college and early marriage, but in the ensuing decades of children and career I found months and even years went by without writing a letter. Christmas was the one exception. I held on stubbornly to the custom of writing to friends and family in December as though it were essential to a meaningful existence.
Even when this annual letter-writing marathon took the form of short handwritten notes on a Christmas card or a photocopied dear-family-and-friends letter, it was a lifeline which enabled me to visualize my friends busy with their jobs, travels, and families and to keep track of their addresses as the years went by. I would have loved to have had Facebook, Google Plus, email, Skype, Facetime, texting, tweets, or blogs in those all-consuming family years. Digital media has been much maligned as keeping people from “real” contact, but the means for keeping in touch today, far from cutting you off, cross the boundaries of space and time to bring people together.
Life events present obstacles to keeping in touch face-to-face or through letters just when we need it most. (I’ve already mentioned two of the big ones– children and work!) What we wouldn’t have given for email when my husband was at sea in his Navy years. When I recently spent a year in Germany researching for my dissertation, I relied daily on Skype, FaceBook, and Words with Friends as a way of connecting personally with the friends and family I missed so much. Now the same media keep me linked with friends I made in Europe. A recent hospitalization was made a little less traumatic because my cell phone gave me access to the outside world through texting and Facebook even when I couldn’t speak. How many people isolated geographically and physically from their loved ones must count on the lifeline of these electronic messages!
Not too long ago columnists and newscasters would bemoan the annual holiday letter as a meaningless exercise in banality and one-upsmanship. Now the tendency is for pundits and commentators to complain that the cell phone, tablet, laptop, or computer keeps us from personal interaction. During this season, especially as letters and emails come to me from all over the world, I would argue that fingers on the keyboard or a picture on the screen are no less communicative and no less loving than pen and paper.
When McLuhan says, “The medium is the message,” he goes on to say that there are “personal and social consequences of any medium, that is of any extension of ourselves” that new technologies bring. The fact that you sent the message matters. It’s the extension of yourself that even the Grinch can’t steal.
“ ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”
Email an old friend this season ! Happy New Year to all!
2001: A Space Odessy, MGM, 1968.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Theodor Seuss Geisel , 1957.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan, 1964.