There was a time when one knew where one was with Christmas cards. It was a matter of counting, or perhaps weighing, what the postman had delivered. If, by a rough and ready calculation, the incoming was about the same as the outgoing, it meant that, socially, professionally, you were still more or less afloat.
With email and the rise of charity chic and environmental correctness, all that has changed. Assessing where you stand in life by reading the runes of your Christmas cards has become more complicated. Here, for the socially insecure, is a rough guide to the significance of cards, in reverse order of importance.
The email charity donation: Quite easily the least desirable Christmas communication, the email telling you that "this year we have decided not to send out cards and will be donating instead to our favourite charity" manages to be simultaneously boastful, morally superior and bone idle.
The promotional Christmas card: Essentially a yuletide commercial, these cards – from businesses, charities, banks, and old schools – are not worthy of the expensive cardboard on which they are printed. They can occasionally be useful if you need to bulk out the ranks of your cards to make you seem more popular than you are. Place them at the back and hope no one looks at them.
The card with a hurried scribble of a name: We all know that sending Christmas cards is a game, but at least we try to enter the spirit of the thing. The scribbler is telling you that the card is being sent out of an irritated sense of social duty.
The card which is a pointless yearly ritual: You have not seen each other for years, and you probably will never again. Yet because you were once friendly enough to swap cards once a year, neither of you can quite bear to break the habit. A meaningless nod in the direction of the past.
The card which contains rather too much personal information: It is a busy time of the year. If there were any moment when you wanted hear news of exams passed, kitchen conversions completed, cousins' engagements announced, it is not now. The news bulletin card is the saloon bar bore of Christmas cards.
Cards with happy photographs of the family: Quite when a religious festival became an excuse for the contentedly domestic to boast about themselves and their grinning families remains a mystery. There is something aggressively smug about the photographic card. It is saying, "Here's our wonderful life. How's yours going?"
An extremely small card: A small, cheap, honest card conveys more sincerity and cheer than an exquisitely tasteful one. As a general rule, the larger the card, the less true feeling it contains.
A home-made card: It may not be providing money for charity, but a card created out of something personal – art, craft, thought – brings with it warmth and individuality. It is a brave reminder that there is more to this time of the year than spending money. A card which is clearly the product of months of work can, on the other hand, tip into the mildly tragic.
A card from an animal: It can be a dog, a cat, a horse, or even a hen. Whatever the species of the sender, a card sent by Pipples, Nibbles or Ruby will bring more pleasure than one from a mere human. Even the most grown-up of grown-ups are allowed to be childish over the next few days.
No card at all: It is a yuletide paradox that sometimes you know someone so well that buying a card in a shop and sending it off to express sentiments unnecessarily is an exercise in futility. As in the Alison Krauss song, they say it best when they say nothing at all.
Time to give 'em both barrels, Kate
No prizes for guessing the most sought-after paparazzi photograph of the Christmas season. The world will be waiting for a snap of Britain's star princess, toting a 12-bore at Sandringham on Boxing Day.
Already there has been much speculation as to whether the Duchess of Cambridge will join the Sandringham shoot, with the usual unnamed courtiers and equerries being quoted by simpering court correspondents.
On the one hand, she has been taking lessons in this essential upper-middle class skill, as have her parents. It seems a shame not to test her eye at the peak of the shooting season on a day when hundreds of pheasants are being driven over her head by loyal estate workers.
Then again, it would not be good publicity for the caring princess to be seen blasting off excitedly at birds, however pretty she may look in tweed. Even the Queen tested her subjects' loyalty when photographed banging a pheasant over the head.
Perhaps Princess Kate should follow her own instinct. There has been a certain lack of definition to her image thus far – just a hint of the decorative-but-dull. Finding herself in the crossfire of a row between the RSPCA and the Royal Family would sharpen the focus on her no end.Reuse content