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This week: Festive neurosis

Sybil's finding sending out Christmas cards is getting on top of her. This year she's been inundated. She doesn't send cards to close friends, but the cards from old work colleagues, new acquaintances and old school friends are mounting up. What are other people's Christmas card policies, she asks?

Making the Christmas card list is when we sort out the sheep from the goats of our friends. Every year, feeling like some master of eugenics, we consign some of our friends and colleagues to a barren hinterland: they will not receive a Christmas card from us any more. Perhaps they haven't come up to scratch in the friendship stakes; perhaps they're old friends but our existence hasn't been refreshed by their presence for so long that we have almost forgotten what they look like; perhaps they haven't sent us a card for years. Whatever, bad friends must get weeded out of the friendship bed if the New Year is to be faced with equilibrium.

Sybil could opt out of the rat-race completely. Stick an ad in a couple of newspapers saying she's giving to charity this year and bung a poster in her front window to the same effect. And send cards only to the elderly and sick who would appreciate it, and perhaps a couple of people abroad she doesn't want to lose touch with.

But though I've often toyed with this idea I can never quite screw up the courage. Instead I have a pile of stamps, cards and envelopes on my hall chair next to my address book and as the cards come in so I, like an automaton, respond. There seems to be no correlation between the people who send me Christmas cards and the relationships I have with people in my personal life. One close friend sends a card; another doesn't. I get a card from my "financial adviser" and not from my accountant. I get a card from one ex but not another ex. There is no meaning I can attach to receiving or not receiving cards from people, which is why I respond in the same mechanical and rather heartless way.

However, I haven't quite got to the point of buying a Christmas card book in which some people apparently log every card they receive and every card they send out and, based on subsequent research, and statistical analysis of said research, they then devise their next year's list and proceed accordingly.

If she can't take the drastic, advertising route, perhaps Sybil should make her own cards to save money - she needs no more than a few sheets of red and green card and a packet of gold stars to rustle up something a great deal more acceptable than a reproduction of even the best painting by Michelangelo - and write the address on the back rather than use envelopes. As a rule of thumb she could decide not to send cards to 1) anyone she sees often enough to give a Christmas hug to; 2) businesses; 3) anyone she hasn't seen or heard from for more than five years; 4) anyone who writes in her card: "Now this year surely must be the time we meet at last to catch up!" and 5) anyone who sends cards out with word-processed labels on the envelope - always with the same spelling and postcode mistake as last year.

She could, of course, simply send out no Christmas cards at all. If she can bear the guilt she will find that each year she probably gets almost as many cards as she did the last. Friendships need much more than a Christmas card to maintain them and as long as she keeps up with them in other ways, by phone or the odd holiday card, she needn't become an outcast. If she's generous the rest of the year, who cares if she plays Scrooge at Christmas?

What readers say

A card once a year is an insult

Surely if we care about friends we should be in touch all year round?

A once-a-year Christmas card is insulting. It's like saying: "Sorry I haven't been in touch - but you don't mean that much to me, but I had a pack of 60 cards and as I still have your address I thought I'd send you one."

Christmas is a Christian festival and surely a Christian attitude should be to care about friends all year round. If I had the money I'd send special Christmas cards to my friends. But they know me - they know I'm skint - so they won't mind not getting any from me.

Charlotte Pitt, Lincoln

Let your mouse do the work

Here's one answer to the Xmas card nightmare. E-mail to your distribution lists.

Peter Mulhern, aka Ol' Scrooge (p.mulhern@tees.ac.uk)

This is the very last time ...

I think the true spirit of Christmas is spoilt by the burden of feeling you "must" exchange cards with everyone who sends one to you.

If you cannot make a concise list of people you truly want to keep in touch with, then I suggest you send one to everyone this year and say that in future years you will be sending no cards at all.

You can say that you will either print your Christmas greetings in The Independent, or that you are sending a gift to a children's charity (appropriate for Christmas).

Mrs J Weller, Birmingham

It doesn't matter what you do

Sending Christmas and New Year cards is quite optional. It is not a tit- for-tat affair.

The only rules should be: 1) send them to those whom you would really like to be the recipients; 2) be pleased if others send you cards, but never feel obliged to do anything about this; 3) never feel upset or think it significant if someone has left you out.

One December I sent no cards at all. No one reproached me. The next year the number I received was as great as ever.

Beware! I suspect that commerce is busily preparing to launch, when the time comes round, its series of very costly "Happy New Millennium" cards.

Dr AS Playfair, Cambridge

Hello, remember me?

Born in the Netherlands, I spent years in different countries and subsequently made many friends in each of them.

Keeping in regular touch with all of them is impossible for me, although I treasure the memory of them. So sending a Christmas card is letting the other person know I still remember her or him and in this way I keep the door ajar for when the situation changes and we might re-open a regular contact.

I agree, it puts pressure on one's budget, but keeping in contact by phone costs more; writing costs time which I do not have at the moment; one can always put some money aside during the rest of the year to spread the burden.

Maryse Anand-Verkaik, Glasgow

Next week's problem: I dread my stepdaughter

Dear Virginia,

I've married again and recently my husband told me, with great delight, that my stepdaughter is coming to stay with us every weekend next year, as opposed to every other weekend, which she's been doing up to now. She's eight and I've hardly been able to bear her coming at all, but have managed to stifle my feelings. She's rude to me, flirts with her father outrageously (while keeping an eye open to see how it affects me), won't eat my food and generally winds me up. My husband was astonished when I burst into tears at this announcement as he had no idea I felt so strongly, but says he's her father first and can't reject her by changing the plans. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Moira

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