Last night at a party someone reminded me of this blog from last year – and suggested I put it out again. So here it is! (If I put it out again next year maybe it will have become a tradition!)
It had never occurred me until today that opening Christmas cards is like drowning. Here you see your whole life flash before you in a few minutes. Right there on the kitchen table, not yet cleared of tea, stands today’s crop, and, like yesterday’s, they have come from friends made at every stage of adult life. And they all mingle together confusingly.
If I were to die in January, say, the Christmas Card Friends would gather, and stand around in this sort of jumble as they look at the flowers in the drizzle. Devonians would rub shoulders with good folk from the Midlands or Cambridge or Manchester while the local majority wonder who these strangers might be.
Maybe that is presumptuous. Is the gift of annual Christmas card really a promise to be there to the end? Is being on a Christmas card list the same as being on the funeral invitation list? Not that any such actual list exists. Happily. But there are some people you’d expect to be there. And if they are not on your Christmas card list – then surely something’s wrong.
The chilly rectory in which I write these sobering reflections predates the earliest Christmas card. That came just a couple of years after the creation of the penny post. Which means that the first door of this house had no letter box. Nor was there a pillar box half way down the street.
It is said that Anthony Trollope had a hand in inventing that. And that the idea was immediately denounced as outrageous – as it made discreet written communication possible. What father could happily let a postman deliver sealed mail through a flapped hole in the door?
But where would the Christmas card be without it?
On the internet of course.
And so it happens – the eChristmas card. But does it do the business? Does it speak enough of effort, of care, of love? With the right data base, a couple of clicks you have you wishing hundreds, thousands perhaps, a ‘Merry Christmas’. But you won’t be promising to attend their funeral. You might not even be able to put a face to their name.
Maybe Christmas Cards are the original social media. ‘X wants to be your Christmas Card Friend,’ announces the card that arrives on December 1st. You ‘accept’ by sending one back on December 7th. You are now linked indefinitely. You are Christmas Card Friends. A few years later no card arrives from your ‘Friend’ and you have to decide whether or not to send your December 7th card. You decide against and, to your horror, theirs arrives on December 17th with a note saying how difficult life has been, some illness perhaps, and how it was a last minute scramble to get the cards out. Help! Do you stay with your decision? Or do you weaken and send that most ambiguous of cards – the one that arrives on Christmas Eve?
The point of all this? I take some comfort that the house where live has seen every chapter in the Christmas card saga unfold. Over the years it has seen the very first few printed ones arrive. It has seen them come in sackloads and in dribs and drabs. It has seen religious ones and drunken mice; it has seen cards made at schools and craft clubs; it has seen glossy cards and novelty cards. It has smiled with approval as the proportion of charity cards has grown to be the vast majority. It has seen cards with gushy handwritten messages in ink and illegible scrawls after the mere word ‘from’ which send you scurrying to read the postmark – unless it is your ritual to seek to determine the identity of the sender before opening the envelope. A task rendered ever more difficult by address labels. Which are also a bit dubious. Surely there is love in the lettering on the envelope.
There ought to be an agreed set of rules for Christmas Carding. An etiquette. Indeed in the absence of one I am inclined to step into the breach and issue some. Here goes:
- ‘never write “and family”’’.
- ‘if you can’t write ‘with love…’ don’t write at all’.
- ‘don’t save up the religious ones for the clergy, send them to the atheists to annoy them and send the clergy the jokey ones to cheer them up at their ‘busy time’.’
But like all sets of rules, they only make the author seem more ridiculous than anyone else (Doh!).
It’s irredeemable chaos out there. There can be no agreed Christmas card etiquette. There is no serious tradition on which we can base our behaviours or with which we can calm our anxiety that somehow we might be doing it wrong. You just have to go for it. Write what you want to whom you want and enjoy any that land on your mat without worrying about the need to reciprocate.
After all, if they turn up at your funeral – you won’t be going to theirs.