The loneliness of the last-minute card sender

This Monday will be the Post Office's busiest day of the year with over 140 million deliveries. And Anne Treneman will have sent none of them
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YESTERDAY I received my first Christmas card. Did I feel joy? Well, yes, but only briefly. The card itself was fine, but then I saw that there were happy, smiling pictures enclosed. My heart sank. My friend had also sent me a long and chatty letter. Typed! "Now I know the secret to getting your Christmas cards off on time," the letter began. "Disability leave!"

My friend, it seems, has a detached retina. My reaction? Jealousy, really. How am I supposed to send back a long, chatty letter, and enclose happy smiling pictures that I haven't even taken, and pick a tasteful card, and mail it in time for the big day? It is easy to succumb, at such times, to despair.

This is a Diseasonal Response, I know, and it won't be the last. The Christmas card season has begun in earnest. The Post Office says that its busiest day will be Monday, when it expects to deliver 140 million letters and cards. For those of us who have not begun sending cards yet, this is a horrendous figure. That means that 140 million letters and cards are being delivered before we have even managed to send one.

Some of you may not even have bought them yet. I sympathise, because deciding on a card can be awful, especially on one of those days when it is impossible to decide on a breakfast cereal, much less pick the image that will embody your good wishes for the entire year.

At this point, though, you have to be grateful that you are not rich or famous, or even a politician. Have you seen No 10's card this year? It shows the place-setting for a lunch put on for Nelson Mandela. What does this mean? Are we supposed to draw in little Christmas crackers beside every plate?

William Hague's card has a bleak scene with some black-faced sheep fighting an avalanche. The Conservatives have not had a joyful year.

Nor has Frank Dobson. The Health Secretary says he is not going to waste time sending cards "to a load of nobs". This may seem Scrooge-like, but it is in fact a wonderful gift to all those nobs who don't want to send him a card either. My Aunt Carol is the only one I know who doesn't send cards. Perhaps this is a reaction to being named after a Christmas carol (her birthday is close to the big day), but it is also rather sensible. And brave, of course, because very few of us could say the same.

Which brings us to the Christmas card list. The main rule about this is that, no matter how many names you cross off, it never gets shorter. Not that I ever cross anyone off - I mean, I send cards to people that I have never even met.

Nor am I alone. A friend tells me that every year, she gets a card from a couple called the Bravefarts who are extremely distant relatives. One year her mother gave this couple her address, and every year since then they have sent her a card, complete with a Christmas letter that is full of news about their illnesses. Every year she crosses them off her list, and every year, after receiving their card, she relents.

It is helpful to divide the list into sections. A friend suggests that the first section could be labelled "Phatic". This is the kind of communication that exists to establish social contact. The very act of sending a card is the message. You need only scribble a name (possibly not even your own) at the bottom. There are plenty of other sections that are a breeze, really. Good friends, business acquaintances and children require only the briefest of efforts usually, as long as you can remember how to spell everyone's name.

But then there are the relatives whom you contact only at Christmas, who require a letter. These are an art form in themselves, as you are writing to a virtual stranger, and are allowed to tell them only happy things. No mention of failure, redundancy or illness here, please.

Or if you must mention it, then there must be a happy resolution. Do not say: "I lost all my teeth and can only gum bananas now." Do say: "I've had a bit of trouble with my teeth, but now all that has been fixed, and I feel better than ever on a banana diet."

I keep waiting for the backlash, and for the Campaign for Real Christmas Cards, which would encourage people to send cards only to people they care about, pass on both good and bad family news and enclose the normal red-eyed photographs.

Somehow I suspect that I am waiting in vain. In the meantime, there is always the faint hope of disability leave.