Suddenly it's gone from feeling very early to be doing Christmas cards to feeling as if I might be behind the curve. Four more arrived this morning, bringing the total to eleven, or ten if you don't count one from a mail order plant nursery I bought some alpines from earlier in the year. They were very nice plants, but I don't think that makes the proprietors my friends, and I knew before opening the envelope that it was not a regular card, because it was addressed to me by my baptismal name. Only my credit card company calls me that.
I made a start on our cards yesterday, but hadn't got as far as posting any apart from one I delivered, and that was only because I needed to drop off a concert ticket for tonight. I made good progress up until lunchtime, when I ran out of cards. I think I must have vaguely thought that as I wouldn't have to give one to everybody in the staff room at the plant centre, where there was an absolute unspoken rule that everyone gave everyone else a card, even the people who hated each other's guts, I wouldn't need as many this year, but now I think about it I ran out last year as well, and had to buy emergency extra supplies at Tesco, which were so horrid I was embarrassed by them.
It is a sweet and sobering experience to go through your address book once a year. We are middle aged and old fashioned enough to still have a physical book, instead of keeping everything on our smart phones. I write quite lightly, in pencil, but you can still see the ghost entries where couples have become singles through death or separation, or where nascent friendships have failed to develop and I've decided there's no point in those names still cluttering up the book. In the cases of several former colleagues where one or the other of us keep in touch the names of their children are pencilled in to avoid difficulties at card writing time. I'm not good at names, and it seems as though twenty years ago every third girl child was called Eleanor while now every other one is Olivia or Lucy. It's hard to keep track.
Some people get a letter. Who does is a movable feast, driven by how well I know them, how much I like them, how often we meet in the year and how recently I've seen them, and whether or not I think they'll like a letter. It feels as though you are impinging on somebody else's time writing to them, and making the presumption that they'll be interested in your news. Some years I've put letters in with some cards and then worried that I shouldn't have done that, we don't know each other that well and they'll think it odd. I've kept in touch with an old school friend for over thirty years through her career as a partner in a City law firm and three children largely by dint of letters. We are pleased when we do see each other, and as I said in this year's missive, one of these years she'll retire and have time to come to an art gallery with me. I am touched when she writes, because I know that she truly does not have very much spare time.
I bumped into someone recently that I know via one of my societies, who wished me a happy Christmas and said obliquely that she was cutting back on cards this year, from which I inferred that she was not sending us one, after having us on her list for the past two or three years. It's a nice question, how many to send and when to stop, which in turn raises the issue of why you were sending a card in the first place. Blood relatives get cards, even if you only see each other at weddings and funerals. Neighbours likewise, if you have managed to discover their names, which we haven't yet in the case of the people with the log cabin in their garden. The Systems Administrator even took a wrongly delivered package round for them once, but they weren't communicative. Maybe we should seize the spirit of the season and go and ask them.
Close friends get cards. Not necessarily letters if we see each other regularly. Former colleagues we were mates with outside work get cards if we're still in touch, even if we only see each other occasionally and via work based reunions rather than on a one on one basis. If I've been invited to consume food and drink in somebody's house during the year in a private capacity rather than as part of a club event then they probably get a card, at least for this year. Then there are people that I've met through shared interests, whose houses I don't visit and who don't come here, and that I wouldn't expect to see outside the club or society, but when we do meet we gravitate towards each other and I like them. They get cards.
It's the hinterland that's the puzzle, the people you aren't quite sure whether you know privately outside your roles as colleagues or fellow members of an association. And the people you used to know well, but now don't seem to hear from so often or get on so well when you meet. Apart from the deaths and divorces, going through an address book acts as a shock audit on your relationships. Which friendships are stronger and better, which are drifting, and which ones have gone downhill since last Christmas card time? And if the latter is there anything to be done about it, or should you apply the Buddhist precept that everything changes, nothing is constant, and some things you have to let go, even friendships? In which case at what point do you stop sending a card? I suppose it's a real world equivalent of the dilemma of when to defriend people on Facebook, which is one reason why I'm not on Facebook. Human relationships are too complex, graduated and messy to be neatly divided into Friends versus not Friends, and at least with Christmas cards you only have to confront the issue annually.
I have every sympathy with people on very low incomes who genuinely can't afford to send many cards, less with those comfortably above the breadline who grumble too much about the cost. It only seems like a big expense because they all come at once in December, when really a pound isn't that much over a whole year to tell somebody that you are thinking of them, and like them enough to spend at least a pound and five minutes of your time to tell them.
I went to the Post Office with the cards I'd done so far and had to wait for a long time behind a man who was posting a dozen parcels all of different weights and lengths. At first I though he was sending Christmas presents before deciding he was a small trader of some sort. That is, I suppose, the downside of internet shopping. Parcels containing books and air brush spare parts arrive for us with minimal effort on our part, while in a post office somewhere the queue is waiting while they get sent off. After the wait the post office manager had run out of Christmas stamps anyway. He'd run out last year as well, so either I should have bought them earlier, or he doesn't bother stocking them.