16 December 2012

Playing your cards right

The well-meant festive gesture of exchanging Christmas cards has turned into a social minefield

If you haven't yet written and sent your Christmas cards, then it's probably hanging over you like a chore still to be ticked off, akin to putting the bins out, only much more time-consuming.  That's how many people see it, and of course now that postage has increased  so much (from 36p to 50p second class) it's also an expensive pastime.

The British are expected to send 800 million Christmas cards this year, which is down on the billion we sent in 2005 but still adds up to an awful lot of expenditure.  The average person will send 19 cards this year, up from 15 last year.  Whoever that average person is, I envy them.  I send many more than that, which will cost a small fortune.

We have a Victorian entrepreneur called Henry Cole to thank - or, if you prefer - to blame, for this expensive annual ritual.  Cole conceived the idea of sending greetings cards at Christmas and in 1843 he commissioned an artist, John Callcott Horsley, the brother-in-law of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to design the first card (see picture above).

 Gordon Kensler, Or. christmas card to Kathleen BlackshearHorsley's artwork was controversial; over the message 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy new Year to You' it featured a family, including a young child, drinking wine.  The burgeoning temperance movement was appalled, yet this failed to kill off the Christmas card concept.  Here we are 170 years later, revising the Christmas card list to include the people we met on holiday in Corfu in 2002, who didn't send us a car last year or the year before, but have done so this time.  It's become more of a pantomime than Mother Goose.  However, I enjoy sending Christmas cards to friends I rarely see.

Lovely card but what's the link with Christmas?!
The cards we send say a lot about us - charity cards, pictures of penguins, teddy bears, snow scenes, mail coaches - even ourselves.  Do we want to show people how well we're doing, how prosperous we are?  

Every Christmas, one of those round robin circular-type letters arrives, listing the families manifold achievements over the past 12 months. The other kind of circular letter is the one full of such banalities that you wonder why they bothyered, unless it was perhaps motivated by the very Christiam impulse to make you feel better about yourself and that your life is much more fun.

What does this have to do with Christmas?

That said, it's nice to include a bit of news with your card, but why not a short, personal, handwritten note, unless of course it's the ultimate cliche: 'hope to see you next year'.  Ths glibly conceals what you both know, that you probably won't see them until you bump into each other at an airport, in 2021.

So the whole business is fraught with potential faux-pas, and nobody knows that better that the etiquette adviser at Debrett's who counsels: 'Choose your cards carefully and be cautious of risque humour or strong religious messages'.
Also, alluding to that unexpected late card from the Corfu acquaintances, she points out that 'all too often the days leading up to Christmas can turn into a tit-for-tat scramble of retaliatory card sending'.  Her advice is 'cut your losses - a christmas card that arrives after the big day looks like a tawdry afterthought'.

True enough, and I also wonder what the point is of robotically dishing out cards to people you see every day?  

Perhaps not in the best taste!
It does look rather like a social minefield.  Little did old Henry Cole know, back in 1843, what he was starting. But he can't be faulted for his sentiment.

Debrett's Christmas card Equiquette

  • Do handwrite your Christmas cards and envelopes.
  • Do include a short personal message if the card is to far-flung friends or relatives.
  • Do include your surname if in doubt, using an informal style: 'from John and Mary Smith', rather than 'from Mr and Mrs John Smith'.
  • Do hand-deliver cards to your nearest and dearest postage is expensive in these straitened times.
  • Do play it safe and keep it traditional; save risque humour for birthday cards.
  • Don't Enclose a general round-robin newsletter, or photographs of the family and pets.
  • Don't use a franking machine for your personal cards, always use a stamp.
  • Don't rely on social networking instead of sending cards, most people (especially more mature recipients) will appreciate written correspondence.
  • Don't send out generic e-cards or a group email; it's lazy and impersonal.
  • The last posting date before Christmas is 20 Dec for first class letters and 15 Dec for second class (yesterday!).

Religious Christmas Card
(from an article in The Sunday Telegraph today)