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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

The Christmas letter started like this: "Books, columns and Christmas letters about dogs are usually better read so I'll start 2013's by saying that we attended the Westminster Dog Show in February. Acres of dogs, all cute, bright, well groomed and expensive, but somebody else's expensive, which usually lends a sweetness to the affair."

The problem with starting with the dog show in New York is that it violates Rule No. 1 about Christmas letters: Thou shall not brag about where one has traveled.

Travel is out of bounds unless trips are local. Tehachapi for the apple festival is fine. Taft for Oildorado. Day trips are best.

If you want to mention a trip in the Christmas letter, be sure to include the flights you missed, the time you spent in airports and the food that made you so sick you haven't been the same since.

"Sue turned 60 this year. If there has ever been somebody who doesn't look 60 it's this great-great-granddaughter of the Mormon pioneers who came across the plains."

Complimenting your wife publicly on how young she looks is good strategy. People have asked me if she was my daughter. I am not offended. Like most people my age, I tend toward puffiness.

"Sam, now 27, became engaged to Lauren and the wedding is scheduled for June. People change, they grow up and all of a sudden they are asking a sweet, sunny girl to get married."

Notice the move for the emotional jugular vein in the last line. Make them laugh, make them cry but what you don't want to do is make them mad. Weddings are inbounds, though. People like hearing about weddings, especially if there might be considerable expense shouldered by the author of the Christmas letter.

"Thomas, 23, has moved up to a line cook at Chez Panisse."

This violates Rule No. 2 of Christmas letters: Thou shall not brag about your children.

"However, Thomas is sunny, hard working and puts his arm around the world and draws it close."

If you have to brag, and what's a Christmas letter without bragging, talk about what a great humanitarian the subject of your bragging is. That lessens the sting.

"Herbie, 29, tends bar three days a week at the Ramen Shop in Oakland and writes music the other four. He lives with Kristin, a sweet young woman. I'm proud of his path which given the state of the music business, is hard."

Once you start bragging, it's hard to stop and you certainly don't want to leave anybody out.

"Katie, 31, has settled in with her husband, Hunter, in La Jolla."

This isn't bragging, it's aspirational, as I'd like to end up there.

"Katie sells insurance. We bought some."

Why not use the Christmas letter in order to drum up business for one of your children? How about including business cards and a quote?

"Sue and I went to Istanbul and then Santorini, Greece (violation), but I'll say a couple things. Istanbul is not what you think, whatever that is. If you have travel money, go. It will blow your mind.

"Santorini? If I die, I hope heaven is like that. If not heaven, the other place."

We're on thin ice with the last two paragraphs. Would it help to know that we lost our luggage once and I almost caught a cold?

"I joined the Bakersfield Master Chorale. I auditioned and made the choir because several other basses either died or left the country."

Laugh line. Not that funny, but after Santorini, it's time to take a knee.

"Sue likes her job as VP of philanthropy at Memorial Hospital. I write columns for the paper. Clearly, I peaked 10 years ago."

More almost funny.

"Life is good. We appreciate it and you."

"Love Herb and Sue"

Life is good. Saying so is not a party foul. It's the truth.

These are Herb Benham's opinions and not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at