The ‘festive season’ will begin soon, illustrating the dominant ‘understanding’ of its significance. Will you be making a cards-list, or is that unnecessary because it is the same every year?
Among the most indicative aspects are songs played by radio-stations and through the customer-announcements facilities in shops. Most of them focus on tangential topics such as Santa and snow. On the barometer of gregarious joy, they range from Andy Williams’ “Most Wonderful Time” to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper.” At the lower end of the spectrum is an irritatingly-repetitious composition which seems to be entitled “Last Christmas.”
Present-buying is either fun or tiresome. “Approaches” editor Hamish Fraser once wrote of present-giving “under pain of being considered mean,” and comedian George Burns said (probably jokingly, but with some realism) that giving them early is a good idea, because it allows time for them to be passed on to other people who can’t use them either.
The annual swamping of religious meaning by secular commerce is exemplified also by the shelves of card-shops. Many years ago “The Catholic Times” published a letter from a man who was sad and worried that a religious picture or message was contained in only 13% of the cards received before the preceding Christmas by his children. He pointed out that “sending Christmas cards that remind us of the true meaning of Christmas is a simple way of swimming against the secular tide. Why,” he asked, “are more Catholic families not doing this?” Perhaps subsequently he realised that “Catholic families” are becoming fewer and that ‘Catholic’ is not a reliable guide to the religious consciousness and beliefs of people to whom it is applied.
In my case, and innumerable others, cards trickle in mainly from the usual senders, with many of whom there has been (as usual) negligible or no contact since the corresponding card last year. Most bear (as usual) little if any more than just their senders’ signatures. The standard underlying message seems to be simply ‘ I’m still alive. I assume that you are.’ Some comparatively-chatty people write ‘Hope you are keeping well.’ Often I used to put letters in with mine, but – probably because of the ‘Why bother?’ thought prompted by the dearth of responses – now I generally adopt the prevalent minimal style.
Perhaps about twelve Christmases ago I received a final annual card from someone who enclosed a copy of a statement that he had decided to stop sending them to the more-than-a-hundred people on his list. I empathise with the feeling of uselessness. Although having never sent anywhere near that number of Christmas cards in any year, there were times (in the 1970s) when I sent to newly-made contacts who seemed to be on my ‘wave-length,’ but it did not help to strengthen the relationships. Very few showed keenness to develop them, so I stopped trying and that was the end of it.
In 2013, idle curiosity moved me to analyse the incoming and outgoing cards, and, wasting more time, I have repeated the exercise after each Christmas since then. Perhaps publication of this will be interesting. It may, however, turn out to be another instance of my occasionally-unfortunate tendency to candour. My close friend once said “You’re always shooting yourself in the foot’. Sometimes reactions have caused me to regret having spoken/written too freely to people with whom I felt at ease – such as when, having received a circularised message including “I hope you are having a good Summer,” I responded by revealing my experience of and attitude to holidays; a scathing response received amounted to ‘Don’t waste your time or mine by discursive comments about minor matters. I am not interested in your circumstances or ideas.’
My annual analysis has categorised the cards and calculated the percentages for each category. After a few years I did some additional arithmetic to find the average percentage in each category. The categories are:
Cards received which were expected;
Cards received from people with whom I am only minimally acquainted;
Senders with whom there had been either no significant contact or one at all since the previous Christmas;
Cards received bearing the senders’ names without significant supplementary inscriptions;
Cards sent which were unreciprocated; and
Cards received which were unintentionally unreciprocated by me.
Perhaps you would be curious enough to apply those criteria in your own life; add other categories if you think of any which seem suitable.
In my case, the approximate averages covering the years from 2013 until 2022 (rounded up or down for simplicity) have shown that almost three-quarters of cards received were expected, nearly a third were from people with whom I am only minimally acquainted, nearly half were from people with whom there had been either no significant contact or none at all since the previous Christmas, and well over half of the senders simply signed the card-producer’s printed message and added either no significant comments or none at all. [Just over 14 per cent of my cards were unreciprocated, and I unintentionally failed to reciprocate just over 11 per cent of those received (those are averages from eight years, not ten).] The over-all summary is that I would not miss ‘hearing’ from most who send to me and that they would not miss ‘hearing’ from me. It reminds me of a parish notices-sheet many years ago, produced by a religious Order; the short article on the ‘printed’ side of the sheet mentioned a meeting or conference at which someone stood up and said that he or she had had so little involvement with other people that their ‘going’ (meaning, presumably, their death) made no difference. The article’s author wrote that the comment had been followed by a stunned silence. There could have been more than one reason for the silence, but perhaps the speaker’s announcement is nearer to reality than many people would like to admit to themselves or to others.
An annual ‘Happy Christmas’ without anything in between is like a sandwich without a filling, and surely it does not fill the recipient with much emotional sustenance, and it seems to me that if pleasure results from a once-per-year card bearing little more than a signature, the recipient is uplifted remarkably easily. A ‘thread-bare’ life cannot be a credible explanation of such a reaction, because to someone in those dire straits a minimal annual message would surely serve only to highlight the social poverty.
Instead of continuing the exchanges of such routine and in-effect-worthless messages, the experience of Christmas could be improved by either putting some practical content into the ‘relationships’ or (where the latter is unachievable or undesired) ending the postal ritual and concentrating on sustaining and deepening any real relationships which the relevant people are fortunate to enjoy.
St. James wrote that it if someone is poorly-clothed and lacking daily food, it is useless to express good will and say something such as ‘keep warm and nourished’ (James 2:15-16). Just as faith without good works is dead (ibid., 2:17), so good will without something more to substantiate it is hollow. Instead of maintaining a standard practice of sending a message (sometimes ready-printed on a purchased card and with little or no supplement other than a signature) at Christmas – or, for that matter, on birthdays – put some ‘life’ into relationships. Write more often; telephone; try to arrange meetings; it can help if people are, between contacts with each other, engaged actively (even if mutually-independently) in pursuing a particular objective. If necessary, ‘force the pace’ by complaining about the established pattern and proposing an infusion of ‘energy’ – lack of recognisable response from the other person may be a ‘message’ that ‘ it’s time to stop ’ .
Ritual can be uplifting if it is ceremonial or liturgical, but let us climb out of the ‘rut-ual’ of tedious, infrequent, shallow communication.