Return to sender

The great Christmas card swindle is underway again. And it's coming to a letterbox near you. By David Newnham

HEAR THAT? Rattle splat, rattle splat. It's been going on for a week now. Only a pair of white envelopes this morning. But in a day or two, they'll be dropping in bundles. Is it too late to make the announcement? It's never too late.

Are you listening out there? All Christmas cards sent to this address will be treated as unsolicited mail and disposed of accordingly. Got that?

Don't expect gratitude. Don't wait for acknowledgment. And most important of all, don't think you're getting a card from me. I'm through with that game. I mean it. I'm getting off the Merrie-Xmas-go-round, and this time, I'm staying off.

What's that you say? I must have been snatched at birth and raised by wild beasts? Quite the reverse, I promise you. A mother who purchased in good time and in reasonable bulk, a father who kept lists and league tables, and who adhered strictly to last-posting dates for overseas mail. I was brought up in a good card-fearing family.

Why, come Christmas Eve, our house would resemble one of the tackier stands at some print industry trade fair. Great swags of cards, having obscured every inch of wallpaper, would fight the carpet pattern for visual dominion over each downstairs room.

Visitors would pretend to read them. "Can you spot this year's double?" my father would challenge them. And their eyes would wearily scan the display until a pair of identical winter scenes had been tracked down. "Snap!"

Good, clean, family fun, you say. And while I remained a mere "and David", dutifully appended to the bottom of all those greetings, I was happy to let the grown-ups play.

But with adulthood came an awful realisation. My parents, their friends and relations were all victims of the biggest racket since toothpaste.

Who was behind it? Gordon Fraser? The Royal Mail? I had my theories. But of one thing I was certain. The card dealers would never get me hooked.

Oh all right, so I was no hero. In the beginning, my apparent refusal to send you all Christmas cards was nothing more than laziness. And for years, it made not a scrap of difference.

Friends of the family - people I had never even met - began sending me cards in my own right, while distant relatives encouraged their children to send me handmade horrors, potato printed on recycled paper and decorated with pasta shapes that detached themselves in transit.

I became aware of certain conventions. People I met every day in the office would post polite cards to my home. Yet no mention would ever be made of these underhand communications, as though they happened of their own accord.

I knew all the justifications by now. Cards were a means of giving to charity, of keeping in touch with people one rarely saw. They were a convenient mechanism whereby we might say all manner of things to our fellows without fear of prolonged contact.

And that last is what caused me to stumble and bring all manner of trouble crashing down on my doormat. It had begun to work, you see. All but a few, whose Christmas card operation was probably computerised anyway, had at last got the message that I wasn't playing the game. And then a child was born.

No, not that one. I'm not talking frankincense'n'myrrh. I'm talking gas'n'air. And when it was all over and mother and baby were doing fine, the congratulations cards began to roll in. Even I could see that this was well-wishing of a different order. Clearly each kind message would have to be acknowledged. And as the happy event took place in late November, what better way to do it than by sending a Christmas card? It was a mistake, of course - a terrible, stupid mistake. Because you had never really gone away. You were all out there, fountain pens cocked, just biding your time, like fleas in a fitted carpet that wait for the cats to come home from the cattery and then pounce.

That first year, you all sent Christmas cards by return of post, right? Regardless of the fact that the card each of you received was merely acknowledgement of your own greetings sent a fortnight previously, you saw fit to follow that up with a further card, effectively thanking me for thanking you. And the following year? It was back to square one - back to age one, even. Except that this time, I was the father with one eye on his list and the other on the letterbox. Well it's got to stop, I tell you. Do you hear me?

Listen! What was that? Rattle splat, rattle splat. Not a second post, surely? Has it come to this already?

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