Pushing the envelope

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Whatever happened to Christmas cards? These days we send mass-produced rubbish, if anything. But a handmade creation is a joy for ever, says Virginia Ironside

Sending Christmas cards, it seems, is a dying occupation. We're sending fewer and fewer cards each year. According to a survey by Saga magazine, half of Britons over the age of 50 plan to cut the number of cards they send this year because of the cost of stamps, and the average number of cards sent per person will fall by a quarter, from 38 last year to 28 this year. Given that there are 21 million people over the age of 50 in the UK, the total number of cards sent this Christmas could slump by 210 million.

It's not just the stamps. Cards generally are too expensive, and many people feel that sending all that paper is environmentally wrong.

It's all a far cry from the days, before the Christmas card industry took over, when we used actually to make our own. My parents, being arty types themselves and both working at the Royal College of Art in the Sixties, had always kept the Christmas cards they'd received from similarly arty friends, nearly all of whom made their own cards. Sometimes they'd be woodcuts or linocuts or block prints, but sometimes they'd be meticulously hand-drawn affairs, painstakingly coloured in, card by card. It became quite competitive, each artist wanting to score over the other with the cunning simplicity of the design or intricate foldings, or the humour of the cartoons or caricatures.

Making Christmas cards was quite an industry in our household, and at the beginning of every December my father would start designing yet another new card to send out to all their friends. I, too, was encouraged to make my own cards, and I'm glad to say all of mine have been carefully kept in the huge Christmas card album that I've now inherited, from which examples are shown on these pages. Throughout the year I'd collect ideas, bits of doilies, bits of ribbon, Victorian scraps and pieces of card and then, come December, I would cut and stick, colour, paint, fold and draw, carefully making sure that each card was absolutely right and perfectly made. They were a pleasure to construct and, I hope, a pleasure to receive.

But the last time I made a card was about five years ago. I bought a rubber stamp of a Christmas tree, a silver ink pad, some black paper, tore a Christmas carol sheet into strips, carefully arranged the lot and, with a silver star added, they looked quite the Ben Nicholson.

But now, to be honest, I just can't be fagged any more. It's partly because no one else is prepared to take the trouble, but mainly it's because I'm so dispirited in the face of the cards I receive from friends. They often buy hideous cards, bought in bulk from charities – charities that I have no interest in – and some of them are so fliply signed they're illegible. A squiggle is all I receive or, worse still, the tantalising 'Anne – we must catch up soon!' when I've got no idea which particular 'Anne' it is.

A financial company now sends me an email each year which lets me know that they're not sending Christmas cards this year but instead sending money to their favourite charities (note 'their' favourite charities. Not necessarily mine, by any means. I really don't know why they bother to tell me).

Other friends have taken simply to sending group email greetings with an accompanying jpeg of bells, snow and robins. No use to man or beast. Straight into my 'Deleted' folder.

I would continue making my own cards if only other people did, too. But last year only one person sent me a homemade card (Nicola Casson, the daughter of Hugh Casson, whose 1951 card to my parents is shown above). It showed care, love and genuine warmth.

And actually, I've become so jaded I've stopped sending cards altogether. I'm afraid to say I now keep all the cards I receive in a basket in the hall and only send one back if I feel the person who sent it would be really upset if I didn't.

And yet, revisiting my parents' old album, I have to say I still hanker after a real old-fashioned Christmas card, both making and receiving one. Perhaps next year…?

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