At Christmas Time {Book Club}

At Christmas Time

Growing up, I loved helping my mom prepare our Christmas cards. When I was younger my job was to lick the stamps (back when that was a thing) or add the return address label, but later I got to address them and sign each family member’s name.

When cards and letters arrived, we grabbed tape and lined them up over the archway going from the kitchen to the living room, moving on as that space filled up to other spots around the living room. I loved seeing those reminders of people that cared about us, family and friends near and far that took time to send a note during the holidays.

My mom would read aloud the letters that were stuffed in the envelopes along with the card, telling us all about this distant cousin’s children’s marriages and adventures, or that old acquaintance’s life updates from the year. Mostly I didn’t know who these people were other than by stories and memories told by my parents, but I loved hearing these letters or reading them on my own later on.

Do you have fun memories of Christmas cards and letters as a kid (or adult)?

This week we are reading the short story “At Christmas Time” by Anton Chekhov, which revolves around a Christmas letter.

This story made me think of this community, our sisterhood of women who are also often far away from mothers and daughters and sisters at the holidays. The mother in this story, Vasilisa, has not heard from her daughter for years. She and her husband cannot read or write, and I can’t imagine the ache of loneliness and isolation they must have felt!

Today we have the gift of technology at our fingertips. We can FaceTime or Skype at a moment’s notice, fill a package with goodies and mail it with at least some confidence that it will arrive unscathed at its destination. We can even create holiday greeting cards and mail them back to our passport country in time for Christmas!

Vasilisa and her husband did not have any of these options, instead they hired a man in the village to transcribe a letter for them. I’m not sure this procedure went exactly as they planned, and I found myself a bit frustrated with the letter writer for his creative license as he added his own thoughts and directives. What did you think of the letter that was written by the man in the village?

Yefimya, the daughter, is overwhelmed with joy when she receives this letter. How sad that her husband was too distracted to actually mail the letters that she wrote to her parents! I wonder how this would have changed and shaped how each one dealt with the separation.

I know every piece of mail that found its way to my little post office mail box in Phnom Penh meant the world to me! The post office was all the way across town so I really only checked it when I knew something was coming or my teammate and I got a call that a package had arrived for us. When we lived outside the city, these post office trips were even fewer and farther between, but it made it even more exciting to see what might be waiting in that box!

The end of the story leaves us hanging, with this interesting phrase from the daughter’s husband, Andrey Hrisanfitch. He says, “Charcot douche” as he bids a general goodday from the hydropathic establishment where he works. According to the introduction of the story, this phrase means, “a restorative bath intended to stimulate the vascular and lymphatic systems” but also could signal restoration of the relationship between the daughter and her parents and even a possible reunion.

So what do you think happens? Do the daughter and son-in-law make a trip to the village to visit her parents? Is the daughter able to write a letter to her parents, and continue to stay in touch now? Does the son-in-law have a change of heart?

Tell us about your Christmas communications! Do you send cards or letters, a special Christmas newsletter or festive video greeting? I’d love to hear about it!

Next week I’ll be counting down a list of my top 5 books of 2019! I’d love to hear more about what you read this year as well. I’m always up for more book ideas!  

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


  1. Michele December 16, 2019

    Just thought I’d give a quick recommendation for an app /service for cards that has been super helpful to me, in case some haven’t heard of it. I use Touchnote to send cards that are much more likely to make it to mailboxes than anything I’d send from Nepal. I don’t remember the exact cost now, but it’s definitely cheaper than buying and sending a card even domestically. You can use your photos to make nice quality postcards or greeting cards, and the cost includes postage- they’ll make it and mail it with your typed message inside. They send for sure in the US, Canada,and I think UK and Australia. I’m not sure where else. I know some expat friends here had never heard of it, so passing it along on in case anyone out there would find it as useful as I have!

    1. Grace L December 17, 2019

      Thank you for this tip, Michele. I am checking out Touchnote now and will give it a try. It looks very interesting, and a good alternative to sending emails. My daugher-in-law still prefers to get postal mail and not electronic mail.

    2. Abigail Zhao December 23, 2019

      That’s cool, Michele. Thanks for sharing. I might look into that.

  2. Kristi December 20, 2019

    What a touching story! I love the way that a simple message, even though it does not say much of the ‘news’, can show love and bring people together. This year we are in the U.S., seeing family and friends that we have not seen for 3 years and will not see again for another few years. It is wonderful to reconnect in person, but I am reminded of how challenging it is to stay in touch and know about each other’s lives while we are apart. How can I stay in touch with people far away, on top of writing newsletters/blogs, while also trying to focus attention on the relationships and people around me in my host country? The questions swirling in my head as we prepare to return to our home in Africa, balancing living in two worlds…

    1. Sarah Hilkemann December 20, 2019

      Kristi, I know you are not alone in wrestling with that challenge! It’s so important to be present where we are, but also stay connected with family and supporters back home. It doesn’t always work perfectly, does it?
      I do love from this short story that even though there had been such a long time of separation and not hearing from each other, it seems like the young woman and her parents are able to meaningfully connect again. It gives me hope for the ways that relationships can be rekindled even from a distance!

  3. Abigail Zhao December 23, 2019

    I have enjoyed making simple Christmas cards with a Christmas tree ink pad stamp, and giving them to other overseas worker families, or mailing them if in the States. Haven’t been able to do much Christmasy things this year through our travel. That’s an interesting story, though so much is left unsaid in it. I started reading Chasing Francis, really looking forward to the book club.:) Merry Christmas!

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