Terence Blacker: The annual duty of putting your social life in order

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The friends of Arianna Huffington have just suffered a grievous disappointment. Arianna, who used to be a Stassinopoulos when she lived here, but went to America and became a Huffington, has just announced through the national press that she will not be sending out cards this Christmas.

It's a war on terror thing, the anthrax problem. According to Arianna, postal workers are under enough stress without having to lug cards to her many, many friends across the country. For those in her social circle, it will be devastating news since, for the past 12 years, the Huffington card has consisted of a photograph of their daughters. There may even have been enclosed one of those boastful, mock-modest newsletters which those who are peculiarly secure in their own lives like to inflict on others.

It is possible, of course, that, in making this painful decision, Arianna was exercised less by thoughts of national security than by a more banal, intimate problem. If you are the card-sending kind, you are obliged at this moment to open the address book and be confronted unavoidably by the changing landscape of your social life.

Deaths are easy, of course; after a decent period of time names are Tippexed off the page and into memory. But what about the friends who never call? Or those who call but you wish they would not? Those damned friends in need, or those whose success or happiness has become a living reproach to your lack of either or both?

Look at it this way. The Christmas card ritual, tedious as it may be, is a way of bringing some sort of internal order, a revised hierarchy, to the shambles of your private life. Your real friends, for example, need no cards at all – the idea of sending them some cheesy effort from the local charity job is simply absurd.

Alarmingly, you may find that the saving in postal costs here is surprisingly small, for real friends – as opposed to those who pop up at Christmastime as if renewing some kind social insurance policy – are really rather rare.

Part-time friends, on the other hand, are all around you. If, during the past year or so, the circumstances of your life have changed – through a divorce, say, or the loss of a job or illness – you will be aware of a puzzling silence from some quarters. It is as if, by having problems, you have become less socially acceptable, a source of embarrassment which they would on balance prefer to avoid in their busy lives.

You will certainly be hearing from these people soon – hastily-written Christmas cards are what part-time friendship is all about – but, in the case of many of them, you might decide to think radically and take the Arianna line.

Leafing through the address book, you will find new entries, names added this year in a spirit of tremulous optimism. These are the would-be friends, people whom you have met and decided that you would like to know better.

Years ago, in the playground, you would have been able to sidle up to them and come right out with it: "Would you like to be my friend?" But now you do the next best thing and send them a card.

Finally, and you may find that this category is shamingly large, there are the self-promotional yuletide greetings to be sent to those whom you hope will do you a favour, professionally, socially or sexually, during the coming months. There is nothing to be ashamed of here – most of those who gathered around the babe a-lying in a manger were there because it would do them a bit of good.

Then, having done your Christmas duty, you can put away the address book without the usual sense of pointlessness. You have put your social life in order. You can face the trying days ahead with equanimity.