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John Walsh

John Walsh: Season's greetings have turned nasty

Well, that's charming, I must say. I've just been shopping for Christmas cards – nothing fancy, neither too holy-baby-with-manger-and-Wise-Men, nor too aggressively stagecoach-trapped-in-the-snow-with-expiring-robin Dickensian, just some cheery Yuletide sentiments – and I confess I'm a quandary about what to buy.

From my local branch of Scribbler, the card shop, should I send my nearest and dearest some amusing pictures of gormless-looking men bearing the matey legend, "So what if it's Christmas – you're still a tosser" or the equally seasonal, "Blah blah Merry Christmas blah"?

Would my aunt Maud's tender old heart be lifted by the cards featuring women on the front, one captioned, "Merry Christmas from one drunken whore to another", the other showing a lady nailing mistletoe to the ceiling with the words, "The mistletoe isn't the only thing that's going to get hammered"? Will connoisseurs of festive bonhomie guffaw at the image of Santa Claus seizing a small child and hissing, "You saw Mommy kissing no-one – understand?" or at the card that pictures a sluttish 1950s housewife saying, "The difference between Christmas and my husband is that I actually want Christmas to come early ..."?

Enough! When did card manufacturers decide that the festive season was fair game for the kind of genial abuse that now animates every genre of greetings card, from the Leaving Work card ("Bugger off then, you useless twat!") to the Bereavement card ("Thinking of you at this difficult time – but I never liked the grumpy old fart anyway!")? When did we decide we were all so over Christmas, we'd send each other missives proclaiming our howling ennui about it all?

We should, I suppose, be amazed that anyone sends Christmas cards at all – that anyone actually buys the things, finds a pen, writes a few words, finds a stamp, appends stamp to envelope and puts the package in a pillar box – when a single email to your entire online address book would suffice. It's something of a shock to discover that you still have some record of your friends' bricks-and-mortar addresses in a yellowing ledger somewhere.

But I remember a time when it used to be important to send Christmas cards to the people on your parents' list. It wasn't just the cards themselves – those sparkly, superficial records of vestigial fondness for someone, on the understanding they'll reciprocate with identical sentiments – but the one or two scribbled extra sentences in which you'd promise to "catch up" or "do better" or "be more in touch" in the new year.

They didn't seem like much, rhetoric-wise, but they were as close as some British people came to a confession and an apology for being aloof or chilly. They even (whisper it) bordered on the heartfelt. In the days of email, they're now dead and gone. And in a card that says "Get sleighed, wanker!" they're really a bit redundant, aren't they?

What would you send? One of these, perhaps

As a happy alternative to the card problem, you might send someone the appealing seasonal package put together by the Candlestick Press. Each Christmas, they produce a slim, updated anthology called The Twelve Poems of Christmas, edited by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to be sent through the post with a bookmark.

This year's selection includes Hardy's skin-prickling poem about the kneeling oxen, Patrick Kavanagh's wonderful "A Christmas Childhood", "Delhi Christmas" by Moniza Alvi, "Picture of a Nativity" by the new Oxford poetry professor Geoffrey Hill, Gerald Manley Hopkins going bonkers about the stars ("O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!") and, coincidentally, a delicious poem from Connie Bensley about crossing an old boyfriend off her card list. I can't think of anyone, except perhaps the "Merry Christmas, arsehole" revellers, who wouldn't be delighted to receive this lovely collection of voices. They're £4.95 each, and that includes a donation to the Red Cross. www.candlestick press.

But a record deal isn't enough for Mary Byrne

Like everyone I know, I'm way too sophisticated and discriminating to have wasted my time this autumn watching any of the wretched X Factor nonsense. But like all the other non-watchers, I was appalled when the utterly heroic Mary Byrne lost out last weekend to that neurotic crybaby, Cher Lloyd.

The secret of Ms Byrne's appeal is simple. It's not just that she can sing. It's that she looks like she can do anything. It's not just her ability to emote into a spotlight. It's the way she naturally radiates strength, confidence and power. She is Brecht's Mother Courage, only with a more impressive set of pipes. If she weren't a 21st-century supermarket checkout girl, she could have been a frontierswoman, armed with musket, club and hunting dagger, defending some rudimentary but efficient homestead in 1890s Nova Scotia.

Standing arms akimbo on the bushveldt, she could have seen off the Zulu tribes at Rorke's Drift, single-handed. She could have been an MP, along the lines of Bessie Braddock. If she were English, she'd be a perfect embodiment of Britannia, complete with trident. If she were in the Detroit police department, muggers and rapists would flee at her approach. In the words of the song, she could make a dress out of a feed-bag and a man outta you.

Yesterday, we were told she'd been offered a record deal by Sony. But isn't it obvious that she is now beyond being a mere singer? Can't the UN sign her up forthwith as a trouble-shooting envoy, telling the cowering figures of Kim Jong-Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in fluent Dublin-ese, to cop on to themselves and get a feckin' grip?