Ritual avoidance: 'Tis the season to feel guilty ... and there's no way out

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Every now and then the cartload of guilt and nagging insufficiency which most of us are committed to hauling up life's slope gets a little heavier. This is bad enough when the extra weight comes from something you can see coming - one of life's regular loading depots, such as marriage or the birth of a child - but it's even worse when it arrives out of the blue, as if a passer-by has surreptitiously heaved an old fridge into the trailer while you weren't looking.

The other day, for example, my children started coming home from school with Christmas cards from their classmates, each one laboriously inscribed by a childish hand, and I suddenly realised that the weight of my annual failure to send cards in time - if at all - had been rendered rather less bearable. Now I have to worry about the fact that my children haven't sent Christmas cards either (not to mention the niggling little codicil of the unnervingly competent handwriting in some of these cards, which pulls the harness of undone homework a bit more deeply into the shoulders). This seems to me a very baleful development, and not one for which the infants themselves can be blamed. However good the handwriting you can't imagine they have been precocious enough to plead for the dubious pleasure of signing and addressing 20 cards. Their essential innocence in this matter is being corrupted and it's simply not good enough - surely there should be some kind of parental non-proliferation treaty to prevent the addition of entirely novel obligations to those we already groan under.

It's not even as if schoolchildren need Christmas cards for their most important current purpose, which is to remind unseen friends and acquaintances that one is still alive. After all, they generally hand them over in person at the classroom door, adding some Christmas greeting which instantly renders the contents redundant - at least as communication rather than social ritual.

Perhaps this sounds grumpily unseasonal but then I have an uneasy conscience, which naturally predisposes me to come up with an argument against Christmas cards rather than for them. If there is anyone out there waiting to receive a card from me this year they will, I fear, be disappointed. Feel free to add yourself to this list of notional recipients, incidentally, because it will almost certainly be more comprehensive than any I would have drawn up in practice.

Every year, the very first resolution I break is that in which I swear to keep all the Christmas cards in a safe place so that I can make amends after another 12 months. I seem to recall that my parents owned a specially designed Christmas card address-book, which would be filled in some time after Twelfth Night to ensure the tightest possible match between one year's reception and the next year's transmission - there were pre-printed boxes in which you could tick off those who had sent and those who hadn't. And while I don't think my parents followed a draconian policy of reciprocation - if people missed a year they weren't instantly cut off - a persistent absence of seasonal greeting could be identified at a glance.

I put this down to my parents' sense of charity, actually - there was no shame in making some distant acquaintance feel bad one year by accident but to do it for three or four years running would be very bad form. Because, although Christmas cards are notionally meant to cheer you up (I assume that's the theory anyway - apart from their useful function in enriching greetings card manufacturers and boosting the Post Office's December profits) they will only do this if you have already sent a Christmas card to the person from whom you are receiving one. And if you haven't sent any at all then every stiff envelope pushed through the letterbox hits the floor with an admonitory slap.

There are some exceptions to this rule, naturally - the card that arrives from three total strangers in the Yorkshire Television Press Office is clearly intended as a corporate aide-memoire, rather than some kind of lip-service to our long friendship (or are these just places where writing out Christmas cards is less boring than all the other things they should be doing?). In a similar way, cards from anybody who stands to gain financially from a relationship with you can reasonably be discounted as a kind of seasonal advertising; Christmas, after all, is the one time of the year when even the most bashful of freelances finds it possible to indulge in a little holly-camouflaged self-promotion. Not always the bashful either - William Hague's Christmas card (which like many politician's postings will have more to do with the maintenance of networks than genuine friendship) this year carries a large portrait of William Pitt the Younger, which would seem to be taking suggestive association just a little too far.

It doesn't help that the boundaries between the public and the private are not exactly clear cut either - we've all received those cards which come across like the annual shareholders letter for Our Family Plc, complete with cover illustrations of the main product line (Susan, seven, and Ben, three) and exhaustive reports on affiliated subsidiaries ("Uncle Ralph retired this year from Unilever, Australia"). For such types the Christmas card is never a question ("Still there? Still think of me?") but a statement ("Doing better than ever") and as such demands no answer. Others carry no more information than that which can be decoded from the array of Christian names under the greeting (I did once learn of the dissolution of two friends' marriage through the arrival of a card from her, with a strange male attached as co-greeter, not to mention an additional baby). Opening one of those purely nominal cards you have the sense of taking part in some great annual roll-call, the roster of acquaintance being tallied up with every post. The only problem being that no two registers will ever precisely overlap; send a card to someone who hasn't sent one to you and you will have shouted "Present" in an assembly where you were not expected. Fail to send one to someone else and there will be an echoing silence when your name is called out.

Some people react to the social anxiety this arouses by a kind of Christmas card carpet bombing - but in the long run that will only lead to retaliation and a spiral of escalation. There is, of course, a much easier way to avoid causing or feeling embarrassment - and that is to establish a solid reputation as a permanent absentee. That's the theory, anyway. Now all I have to do is to find some way to remove the unwanted guilt.

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