Musings of a dad with too much time on his hands and not enough to do. Wait. Reverse that.

Month: January 2018 (page 1 of 2)

The Christmas Letter

Subtitle: The Christmas Letter as an important family heirloom and genealogical device

Ok, this might be a month or two late, but I’m going to role with it, anyway.

About ten Christmases ago, I unwrapped a box from my mom containing a simple three ring binder. Opening the cover, I discovered xeroxed copies of every Christmas letter she wrote about our family from the 1980s onward. How my sister and I were performing in school, what we did for summer vacation, how my parents’ jobs were progressing (or not). Weddings and funerals. Events I’ve long forgotten, but now have a permanent record.

It might seem a bit gauche to recount to friends and family Susie’s first lost tooth or the family trip to Lake Wobegon; nevertheless, the annual family Christmas letter can really help paint the picture of your family, especially from the distance of time. So, if I’ve convinced you that it’s worth 30-60 minutes of your time, once a year, to sit down and recount your adventures for the past 12 months, here are a few tips I’d like to offer:

Keep your yearly narrative to one page, single sided

I had a relative who, for several years, would write multiple two-sided pages, with small font, for her family’s letter. That seems a little excessive. Even your closest relatives will struggle to make it through such lengthy prose. It seems to me that one full page, single-sided, is sufficient to recap your year.

Include one or two photos

I try to include one family photo in the top right-hand corner of our letter and one photo of just the kids in the bottom left corner. Most family and friends, particularly those you haven’t seen in years, enjoy watching how the kids mature year-after-year, not to mention the increasing gray hair and girth of the parents.

Spend a few bucks on Christmas stationary

Printing your letter on plain white printer paper is a bit bland. Spice things up by printing on fancy Christmas stationary. Given that I still want to pack as much content in my letter as I can plus the fact that I’m printing pictures on the stationary, I take pains to find paper that still maximizes the writing space and allows me to position my pictures so that they don’t print atop a reindeer or snowflake. Stationary that merely decorates the perimeter of the page is ideal.  Some examples:

Also, play with the margins in your word processing software a little to maximize the printable space. Use a ruler to measure the designs on each side of the stationary and adjust the margins accordingly. To test your work, print off a draft on plain paper, line the stationary up behind the draft and hold both up against a light to see if text or pictures print over any of the artwork. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Fonts: don’t get cute

You might be inclined to choose a cutesie font like some of the “script” ones or “hand written” fonts. I wouldn’t advise it. One: these fonts can often be hard to read: particularly at small point sizes. And two: these cutesie fonts can just be plain obnoxious. Arial, Calibri, and the like are well enough. Furthermore, to be able to pack sufficient content into your letter, I recommend a point size of 10-12. Any smaller and Grandma will struggle to read it and any larger and you’ll be forced to edit out Billy’s first foray with “big boy pants”. Arial and the like still read well at smaller point sizes whereas those cutesie fonts don’t.


In my letters, I try to give each of my kids a paragraph of 4-5 sentences and give 2-3 sentences to the wife and another 2-3 to myself. The family vacation gets a sentence or two. If there’s still room, consider a brief mention of extended family, particularly grandparents and aunts and uncles. For the kids, I like mention age, year in school, and the name of each child’s school. Extra-curriculars are important to mention–basketball, chess, Scouts, etc.–as well as important events, such as winning the dance competition or earning a driver’s license. The family pet might also merit a mention, as well.

To Joke or not to Joke

If you stick to my one-page, one-side rule, you don’t have much room to summarize your year, let alone be funny about it. Nevertheless, if you can stick a funny quip or two in your exposition–and actually make if funny–that will certainly draw in your reader. Pro-tip: jokes about teaching the kid to drive are an easy win.

What year was this?

Obviously, if you’re mailing your letter out in December 2017, your recipients know you’re recapping the events of that year. But what if you pick up that page ten years from now? Don’t forget to print the date–or at least the year–somewhere in either the prose of the letter or in the header or footer.

Where can I learn more?

In your signature, think about including a family email address so that it’s easy to receive the numerous accolades your writing is sure to inspire.

Your Audience

Be thoughtful about the recipients of your annual memoir. Mine certainly goes to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends. Work colleagues? Nah. That’s a little too much information. Instead, we’ll send those folks the ever popular Christmas picture-postcard.

After it’s all said and done

Now, we move closer to heirloom properties of the letter. When you’re printing off high quality copies of your work on the nice holiday stationary, print at least one extra page for each member of your household, particularly the children. I recommend keeping these extra copies in a file folder or a three ring binder. At some point in the future, as my mom did, I suggest presenting these copies to each child as a present–maybe one of the best they’ll ever receive.

In addition to printing extra copies, scan a printed version of your letter on the nice stationary as either an image file or PDF. Backup your scan, along with your word processing file, as you backup all your other important files. Probably at the same time you gift those hard copies, I would also give your children a flash drive containing the scans, just so they have both versions.


Every December when the wife and I sit down to write our letter, we always pull up last year’s for inspiration and I almost always read about some activity or event I’ve completely forgotten. If you don’t write those memories down, you might lose them forever. The Christmas letter is an excellent way to enshrine them in ink, permanently.

Poor man’s date calculator

A relative asked me the other day, “how old was Tom when he died?” Well, I had to first look up when Tom died: June 23, 1984. Then, I had to look up when Tom was born: March 29, 1916. Then, I had to ask myself: “how the heck am I going to calculate the age difference?”

There are date calculators out there, but what if I’m offline or just want to do a quick calculation on my own hardware? Well, we can do some quick-and-dirty calculations in PowerShell! As I see it, there are a few use cases here:

Use Case 1: How old was Tom when …?
Given two dates–a person’s birth date and the date of some event (death, marriage, birth of a child, etc.)–what was that person’s age at the time of the event? In PowerShell, getting the “years old” is relatively easy with a one-liner (I created two variables, though, just for readability):

$birth_date = [datetime]"3/29/1916"
$death_date = [datetime]"6/23/1984"
"Tom was {0} years old when he died" -f [math]::floor((new-timespan -start $birth_date -end $death_date).Days / 365.2425)

However, getting the months and days after that is trickier and will be cleaner looking if I put it in a script, so check it out here.

Use Case 2: When was Sarah born?
Consider this photo of one of my ancestor’s tombstone:

The tombstone of Sarah Osburn says she was 23 years, 3 months, and 9 days when she died on December 15, 1872. So, when was she born? We can calculate this use case quite easy with a PowerShell one-liner:

"Sarah was born on {0:MMM dd, yyyy}" -f ([datetime]"12/15/1872").AddYears(-23).AddMonths(-3).AddDays(-9)


Use Case 3: When did Betty die?
Certainly, the first two use cases are real questions I’ve encountered in my genealogical endeavors. We could, though, consider a third use case: assume we have a person’s (we’ll call her “Betty”) birth date and age information at the time of an event…say, her death. When, then, did she die?

Well, it seems we can re-implement our solution to Use Case 2 to solve this problem. Let’s assume Betty was born on April 14, 1912 and died at age 73 years, 2 months, and 3 days old. On what day did she die?  PowerShell will tell us:

"Betty died on {0:MMM dd, yyyy}" -f ([datetime]"4/14/1912").AddYears(73).AddMonths(2).AddDays(3)

So, there you go: a poor man’s date calculator for all your genealogical needs!

Music to drive by

When I’m not listening to podcasts in the car, I, of course, like to listen to music. Terrestrial radio, though, is lame and I’m too cheap for satellite; so, the music I listen to is either songs I’ve downloaded to my phone or songs I’ve downloaded to a USB drive that I can plug into my console.

I’ve collected a few CDs over the years and have managed to digitize about every one of them. At last count, my digitized music catalog consists of over 8700 songs across 600+ albums. My catalog is just under 50 Gb…which means, it can fit on a single flash drive…which means I should be able to take my entire catalog with me on important trips like clearance day at the Frugal Hoosier!

Unfortunately, my car stereo seems to have some limitations and when I pack 8000 or so songs on a drive, the stereo a) takes 5-10 minutes to even read the drive and b) never seems to read all the songs on the drive. So, I need to start being selective about what songs I take with me. I don’t want to have to click through 600+ folders, though, and drag-and-drop files one-at-a-time.  Who has the time for that? What if I copy over songs by genre, such as “Rock” or “Metal” or whatever? Or I could make a list of favorite bands or albums and copy over anything that matches that list.

Well, I can do all this through the wonder of PowerShell. Here’s a script I put together to inventory all the MP3s in my Music folder and collect various ID3 tag information on them including genre, artist, album, etc. Finally, it copies MP3 files that meet my conditions–like favorite genres or whatever–over to my flash drive.

Unfortunately, this script is pretty slow: I think largely because I have to instantiate the shell.application COM object to get the MP3s’ ID3 tag information.  Your mileage may vary. Initially, I tried several of the open source .NET ID3 libraries out there but could get none of them to work. At any rate, this thing works for me, so I thought it might be worth sharing. Now, get rockin’ down the highway!

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