Every year, on 1st December, two seasonal items show up in the to-do list app on my phone. One reminds me to set up my ceramic Christmas Tree (a small green china Christmas Tree, looking like a little fir tree with snow on its branches, festooned with coloured plastic 'cones' through which light shines when you plug the thing in). The other nudges me to create a Christmas Card list (nowadays a spreadsheet, pre-populated with the names and locations of last year's recipients).
The tree (which I have owned since 1992 or thereabouts - it was a present from Mum and Dad), looks very pretty when lit, and setting it up in early December is something I look forward to. And for twenty-five years this has been all I ever do in the way of Christmas decoration, even though up in the attic is a box-full of more usual Christmas stuff that Dad used to put up.
The sending of cards is something else. It's a definite chore. And I don't know anyone else who doesn't regard it as a chore too, however much they may otherwise thrill to the atmosphere of Christmastime. I suppose you can have chores you don't mind, as well as chores you find something of a drudge. I don't hate the task. I do like the notion of sending a personal message individually written in one's own fair hand, with the intention of keeping in touch at a merry and warm-hearted time of year. But the reality is much less golden. It involves organisation, time and expense, and can become a job of work on an industrial scale. This detracts badly from the essential purpose of sending these cards.
The spreadsheet I created for the first time last year was a distinct improvement on the hand-written paper lists I'd used each year before. For one thing, as an electronic document it could be copied and reused. I had a system for showing who had been send a card, and on what date. It was capable of statistical analysis. It was a tool for getting a big job done efficiently. But, as I proceeded, I felt - even more than in previous years - that I was tackling 'a job of work' - rather than pleasurably keeping in touch with the people I most cherished in my life. It crossed my mind that while this was not a pointless exercise, it was most certainly a tedious annual ritual, and to some extent an insincere one, because politeness and even-handedness required that everyone connected with me by ties of family or acquaintanceship had to be sent a card - not just my closest friends. That rather swelled the numbers!
Of course, to a great extent the thing was reciprocal: In December 2016 I wrote 51 cards, 35 of which had to be posted. (There were also a handful of emails to those who, for a variety of practical reasons, could not be sent a card) But a harvest of cards came my way too. More than enough to 'decorate' my lounge with. Collectively they added much to the Christmas atmosphere in my home.
It crossed my mind that many more people could be sent emails, rather than cards, but then if we all did this the annual exchange of Christmas Cards would decline to a small trickle, and the Royal Mail would be badly hit. And besides, an email was an intangible thing, and, whatever the warmth of its words, would seem insubstantial and 'cold' to many people. And there were people who had not embraced computers, and 'electronic technology' generally, as a routine part of their lives, and would never even realise that one or more Christmas messages had been sent to them. This was perhaps a generational thing. I was sure that young adults wouldn't mind. But older people might feel offended, fobbed off (as they might think) with a 'lazy' email.
Children, of course, still needed the personal touch, and if I were sending them (or anyone else) a cheque or a banknote, then such an enclosure demanded a real-life card to hide it in.
Sigh. There is no across-the-board solution to this. Except to cancel Christmas entirely!
Well, I suppose I will update this year's spreadsheet during the next day or two, and set to. Some cards will be written with fondness and great pleasure, others as almost a duty. About £40-worth of cards and stamps will be needed. That's not a small cost, and although I can easily budget for it, I'm conscious that more people than last year will find it difficult to find the money. In other words, if a card from me drops onto their hall mat, it creates an obligation to send me one in return, and that will strain their own Christmas budget a little more. It will also chip away at their time and attention. In different ways, I'm guilty if don't send a card, and guilty if I do; and the same for everyone else.
Let's face it, if a person really means something to you, you keep in touch during the year by other means, and sending a Christmas Card is therefore a superfluous ritual act.
This year, on the 20th December, I am having my best village friends over for a Goose Dinner. This is my warm-hearted Christmas Effort. It'll be a dinner for eight, and a proper squeeze on my table for six. It involves a 5.5 kilo goose, a huge variety of vegetables, a starter and a dessert. I'm concentrating my personal effort on getting the house looking nice, cooking the bird to perfection, and dealing with those vegetables that need not go in the oven. Jackie next door is handling the veggie bake and the oven-cooked vegetables. Jo is doing the starter, and Valerie the dessert. I've spent £80 or so on sixteen of those snazzy square plain-white dinner and dessert plates, as seen on Masterchef. I have never entertained on such a scale for Christmas. I have never before cooked a goose. Indeed, I've never personally cooked a large bird before, for so many guests.
But it's no great technical feat really. My girl friends will cluster round, and I can call on their husbands to carve. I'm sure it will be a very jolly occasion. And, to my mind, it will be so much more to do with what this time of year is really all about: affirming friendships face-to-face, enjoying nice things and happy times in each other's company.
Food and drink and laughter will do. I don't think any of my guests will feel a sense of loss if I haven't handed them a Christmas card.
But of course I will. At least for this year, 2017. I've got a feeling, though, that the nature of Christmas has already changed sharply for the worse. It's now totally swamped by blatant commercial interests. At, it seems, an accelerating rate. You know, not just ordinary sales in shops, but Black Friday too, and now an extended Black Friday that goes on into the following Monday, and beyond.
There will inevitably be a reaction. I'm thinking that out-of-control frenzied consumerism will at some point soon be seen as a social disease, a vice, possibly even as something revolting and horrible, the source of life-ruining ills such as rampant personal debt.
I don't think that a new spirituality will replace the frantic spending spree, but perhaps we will all take a step back and do something better with December than we do now.