Some stupid Christmas traditions

Cards should be sent, if at all, only to people we see infrequently
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The Independent Online

When I interview famous people, one of my favourite questions is to ask them what they would do if they were given dictatorial powers over their profession. How would Sir Henry Cooper improve boxing? What changes would Clive Woodward make to the rugby union laws? Or John McEnroe to men's tennis? What would Gordon Ramsay abolish from the world of fine dining, apart from Antony Worrall Thompson? So I wonder what Father Christmas would say, were I to hunker down with him in his grotto and ask the same question? I know what I'd like him to say.

That Christmas cards should be sent, if at all, only to people we see infrequently. But that on no account should they contain a hastily scribbled note saying: "Can't believe another year has gone by - hope to see you in 2004". That they should never, ever, be handed over in person, unless both writer and recipient are still school age. Preferably primary school age.

And most importantly of all, that some percentage of the purchase price of the card should go to charity.

I don't care which charity. It can be anything from Oxfam to the Donkey Sanctuary. But please don't let Christmas swell the coffers of Marks & Spencer or WH Smith any more than it already does.

In a paradoxical way it is Scrooge-like of me, but whenever I receive a particularly lavish card I flip it over to see whether anyone is going to benefit from this largesse. The lifeboatmen, perhaps, or one-parent families. Because I certainly don't benefit from it. I don't want to know that our friends Trudy and Martin are so flush this Christmas that they're shelling out £2.99 per card. And I don't need another picture of a cartoon Santa having a snowball fight with Rudolf. Frankly, I'd rather not hear from Trudy and Martin at all, if in sending me their greetings they can't throw a couple of pence in the direction of the NSPCC.

Nor do I especially want to read that Trudy and Martin hope to see me in 2004. They said the same thing about 2003. And 2002. If they want to see me so much, it's really not that difficult to arrange. Yes, I know the hastily scribbled note is a social nicety, and I'm all for certain social niceties, but not those rooted in laziness, or insincerity, or robotic habit.

Still, even the dashed-off note is more personal than the circular letter, which informs you, among other things, that Grandma Wagstaffe has in the past 12 months been diagnosed as diabetic. How is that bit of information supposed to enrich your life this Christmas? It might possibly stop you from giving Grandma Wagstaffe a coconut pyramid in the highly unlikely event of your ever meeting her, but that's about all.

Then there's the nonsense of handing cards to people we see all the time.

The message seems to be: I like you, but our friendship is not quite worth the price of a stamp, so here you are. Arguably, it's even dafter to walk to the end of your street in order to post a card to the woman who lives next door, but at least that way the envelope won't end up in her anorak pocket for the next three days, finally to emerge with a boiled sweet welded to it.

If Father Christmas is given dictatorial powers over Christmas, then, I hope he will reform the whole idiotic business, making it illegal to send non-charity cards, illegal to hand cards to neighbours in the street, and illegal to scribble little notes expressing vague and non- committal hopes for a get-together in the new year. Whether or not he bans the circular letter rather depends on whether he is American, it being, like trick-or-treating at Hallowe'en, a custom that regrettably has crossed the Atlantic.

None of which is to say, incidentally, that I don't enjoy hearing from old friends at Christmas. But either they should go the whole hog with all the trimmings, and enclose a personalised letter, or they should follow the example of my wife's old friends Steve and Lois, whom she hasn't seen for a decade or more.

Their card this year contained a scribbled e-mail address. Which is clever, because that way, the onus transfers to the recipient. The message is: if you can't be arsed to make contact in 2004, fine. We're not going to say it's been ages, or that it would be nice to see you sometime, because frankly we've forgotten what you look like. And we're not going to tell you anything about our children's swimming certificates, because you've never met them. But if you want to reach us, this is how. I like that. It's friendly but pragmatic.

And I like Christmas too, truly I do. I just wish we weren't all so constrained by stupid traditions. But happy holidays anyway. See you in 2004. I hope.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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