Sarah Drew on Dating in the Digital Age and a Very Romantic Christmas With Her Husband

By: Robert Khan

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Actress Sarah Drew of "Christmas Pen Pals" and the upcoming "Twinkle All the Way" (Premieres Saturday, November 23 at 8/7c) talks to us about the letters she and her husband exchanged before dating, how apps have changed romance and the unique new Christmas tradition she started with her neighbors.

In "Christmas Pen Pals," Hannah is the creator of a dating app that's losing customers by the thousands. What do you think about the world of online dating? Are there people in your life who found their "match" online?

I don't personally know anyone who found their person online, though I know it happens.

In the movie, your character signs up for "Christmas Cupid," a game where people correspond by handwritten letter with a pen pal whose identity is known only to a local matchmaker. Do you think that's something people could have the patience to do today? In our world of "swiping" left and right?

I would love to say yes, but I think our culture is so conditioned to want instant gratification these days, it would be a rare experience to engage in an event like "Christmas Cupid."  But that is exactly what I loved about my own personal love story.

My husband and I met at a camp and then wrote letters to each other for eight months before even going on our first date.  I remember the excitement and anticipation of waiting for a letter from him to arrive.  I remember thoughtfully and carefully sharing my heart with him when I wrote letters to him and I remember the thought and care he exhibited toward me through his letters. You can't play games when you write letters.  I think you can be much more transparent and vulnerable and allow for real, authentic connection when you communicate that way. I also think slowing down and thinking through what you are going to say, and then reading and rereading a letter you receive allows you to take a moment and really let the words settle into your heart.

My letters with my husband built a deep foundation of friendship and love before we went on our first date, and I'm so grateful for that.  I knew he wasn't playing any games. I knew how he felt about me, because he told me how he felt.  The stories I hear from people who are dating these days feel so foreign to me.  There are rules to the game and puzzles you have to figure out. I wouldn't even know where to begin in the dating world now.

Growing up, did you have a pen pal? If so, how long did you keep in touch? What do you remember about that person?

I did for a while.  I moved away from Virginia when I was 6 and stayed in touch with my bestie, Susie Sprinkle for a long time afterwards.  I loved writing those letters and getting them back from her.

Hannah is so used to interacting with a digital personal assistant that she has a harder time revealing feelings face-to-face. Do you think dating apps have made romance easier, or more difficult?

They've changed romance into something very different than what I experienced.  The apps allow people to meet more people than one would in one's daily life, but I also think the volume of possibilities doesn't necessarily make for quality connections.

I just watched a documentary about the dating app world and it was really illuminating.  A few things jumped out to me. One was that because the app is set up like a video game where you swipe and swipe and swipe until you get a match, it can create an addictive experience, so even if someone finds a connection to another person on a date, they will keep being drawn to the "game" because they know that there are thousands and thousands of other potential "matches" and they don't want to limit their experience.  It makes it harder to commit to one person when you have thousands of other possibilities at your fingertips.

The other thing is what one of the experts said about what women are after and what men are after on the apps.  This is a huge generalization, and the expert makes that clear in the doc, but based on their research, women are typically on the apps to find a relationship, while men are typically on the apps to hook up.  My guess is that having totally different objectives can make the emergence of romance extremely difficult. But what do I know?  I've been married forever and barely dated at all before meeting my husband.

Was there a Christmas that was particularly romantic for you?

The first year my husband and I were dating felt very romantic. We went on a trip with some college friends to Chicago.  It was the first time we traveled together.  I remember buying a bunch of little gifts for Peter's stocking, wrapping each gift and writing a poem for each of the gifts. I was so in love with him, and writing love notes to each other had become the backbone of our relationship.  It still is. There is power in the written word, in putting pen to paper to tell someone why we love them, and why we are grateful for them.

Exchanging gifts with each other was so romantic. We were on a vacation. We felt like grownups because we did our own little Christmas before parting ways to go to each of our family's houses for Christmas break.  It felt very adult—like we were beginning to form our own little family.

Since you have two young children, what does your family do to get in the holiday spirit? Are there are any traditions you had growing up that you've maintained?

We actually started a new tradition a few years ago with our neighbors and their kids. It was inspired by my son Micah, when he was 4.  He was really excited about making gifts for his friends and using his own money to buy gifts for everyone. Our house was practically the North Pole with all of the crafting that was happening.

That idea became a neighborhood cookie decorating gathering that culminated in delivering the treats as a group to the neighbors around the block.  We've done that every year since. The kids come over in the morning and we decorate cookies, and then, that evening, all the kids dress up like elves. We decorate our neighbor's red wagon.  My kids dress up like Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and we all go around the block, delivering the treat bags and singing carols!  It's like reverse trick-or-treating!

What's the best gift you've ever given—or received—around the holidays?

Both of my children came around the holidays, so I would have to say they are—by far, the best gifts — I've ever received … and given!