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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower