The first sign that Christmas had started was, for me, dear Maeve Binchy's card plopping on the doormat. Maeve was just about the most organised person I knew – certainly the most organised writer – and her cards arrived promptly with the onset of December. And very welcome they were. They always bore the warm message, and a few newsy words or comments added.
Yet, although I like to see the postal services still used, I am not altogether displeased that people are sending fewer cards at Christmas and using electronic messages more. It's pleasant to receive a card, to be sure, but many of the messages appended are blatantly unsatisfactory. 'With love from Liz.'
First of all, who is Liz? Can't read the postmark and no address given. If she wants to send me a message at Christmas, perhaps she might include a bit more info?
A friend who moved to another town three years ago just dispatches a brief card, 'With love from Joyce'. Why doesn't she report how she's getting along? What is the new place like? Has she made friends? How is her family? The austerity of some Christmas card messages is extraordinary: I mean, if you're going to the trouble and expense of selecting a card, writing in it and posting it, why not add a little value with a newsy message?
And then there are the insincere cards. A little hypocrisy makes the world go around, and I'm not opposed to an acquaintance's attempt at a pleasant smile when, in truth, he or she has a low opinion of your housekeeping skills and is none too impressed by the squalid state of your car.
Life would be intolerable without hypocrisy, as Saki's famous story about the cat who always told the unvarnished truth – Tobermory – so vividly illustrates.
But there are limits even to social hypocrisy. Don't write 'lots of love' on a Christmas card if you don't mean it – and if you live within five miles of the recipient and never see them from one year's end to the next, you certainly don't mean 'lots of love'.
'Lots of love' is flung about with dismaying promiscuity anyway, and even the currency of 'love' is now devalued into a pale alloy; but it's patently vacuous when people who never bother to contact you otherwise send 'lots of love'
I get this a lot with my invalid husband. "How is Richard?" – the inquiry is made with a deeply concerned expression.
"In low spirits." "Oh dear. Do give him our best love." It's on the tip of my tongue to respond: "Why don't you flipping well visit him and give him your love yourself?" But since I adhere to the Hypocrisy-Makes-the-World-Go-Around principle, I just smile weakly. It's made me cynical, however, about all this 'lots of love' stuff: there was a good old Irish word for it – ráiméis. People say a lot of things to make themselves feel good, rather than to communicate anything meaningful. "I'm such a deeply caring, sharing person," is the self-regarding message folk like to transmit. This is, incidentally, why nobody wants to be described as 'right-wing' any more – it sounds so uncaring and harsh – and is currently used as an insult. (The French call this la droitophobie.)
But it's what you do that defines you, not what you say. Writing 'lots of love' on a Christmas card doesn't prove 'lots of love'.
The unforgettable Eliza Doolittle aria in My Fair Lady brilliantly disparages too many airy allusions to love: "Don't talk of spring, don't talk of fall, don't talk at all – show me!"
Look, I'm glad to receive cards, and when I finally get around to doing so – in the last week before Christmas – I even enjoy writing some. I'm just suggesting that a genuinely rewarding Christmas card is one that says more than 'with lots of love from'.
Add a little value with a few words.
Christmas cards first developed in the Victorian era, when some imaginative entrepreneur saw that a pretty card could cheer up a recipient, be good for business and help keep families and friends in touch. Previously, there had been something of a tradition of people writing letters to one another around Christmas time.
In France, that tradition still existed well into the 1960s, when French friends would write to my family rather than send a card. What was pleasantly elastic about this practice was that such Christmas letters could be written up to January 6 – the Epiphany, which was a much bigger feast day in France and Italy than December 25.
Sometimes it was acceptable to write Christmas letters up to the end of January, which gave you a lot more time for newsy epistle (or Round Robins, which I love for all the rich information).
When I occasionally come across old Christmas letters in the jumble I call my 'family archive', they are a fascinating insight into the everyday events of 50 years ago.
Christmas cards are changing in a number of ways – there are more family-specific ones now (Happy Christmas, Son-in-Law!) – and there's the rise of the electronic Christmas card, some of which are lovely, with built-in animation.
When a new form of communication develops, it often changes the old form – the cinema changed the theatre, TV changed the cinema – and sometimes enhances it. Maybe when a large volume of Christmas greetings are sent by email, the 'real' card sent through the post will become more meaningful.
Something substantial will be written on the inside – they might even develop into a mini-letter.
And that will surely bring tidings of comfort and joy.'If you're going to the trouble of selecting a card, why not add a little value with a newsy message?'