This Is Almost As Bad As Suddenly Discovering You’re A Tory.
I mean, it’s not as if I have anything against greetings cards in the abstract. I even quite enjoy choosing them sometimes – especially for birthdays. My personal taste runs towards deliberately incorrect age-milestones and the ones with the kind of joke you don’t want to have to explain to your children. But I’m also quite fond of cards with arty pictures and no words on the front (and the ones with no words on the inside either are a godsend for those chilling 3am oh-shit-it’s-TOMORROW-and-I-FORGOT-to-buy-a-CARD moments of clarity). I also like the ones that have glitter and ribbon and buttons – so cute! So crafty! So nicely made! And if you get me drunk and trap me in a corner, I’ll probably confess to really quite liking the ones where cute animals are wearing hats, sitting in things, or wearing hats while sitting in things.
Christmas cards, on the other hand, I struggle with. In a good year, I get it together enough to send them to the people I love, but know I have no chance of seeing in the two-month window on either side of the milestone. In an average one, I’ll remember to buy a box of cards for the kids to send laborious greetings to their classmates. But cards for people I’m going to actually see on Christmas Day? Maybe not so much.
I felt this way for all of my life until I met my husband, and until I met my husband it never occurred to me that anyone else would feel differently. And then I was introduced to a whole other way of doing cards. I got my first inkling of this when our first wedding anniversary rolled around, and to my amazement, we got an anniversary card…from his parents.
This was a total shock to me. In my family, wedding anniversaries are marked by the following ritual: some time towards the end of September, my mum and dad will look at each other in the kitchen and one of them will say, “Wasn’t it our wedding anniversary last week?” And the other one will say, “Yeah, I think it might have been actually,” and they have an amiable argument about whether they got married in 1970 or 1971, and what date it had taken place on, and whether this corresponded to last Tuesday or last Thursday, before moving onto more important things, like whether it’s too late in the evening to make a cup of tea.
Do you see what I’m saying here? I was raised in a household where the notion of remembering to buy a card that commemorates the day you, yourself, married the personal love of your life was considered a bit of a challenge. The notion of remembering to send a card to mark the day someone else did it was simply unimaginable. And then, out of the blue…an anniversary card from my husband’s parents. Clearly I had married into a family where these things were done differently. In this family, cards mattered. It was time I started shaping up and taking notice.
And then I started to notice other little signs. Signs that maybe the matter of Card Specialness wasn’t just confined to personal milestones. Like the way that, even before our children were old enough to make cards at playgroup, my husband always bought me a Christmas card from each of them and got them to put a bit of pre-literate scribble in them. Or the fact that the Christmas cards we received from his parents had, at the appropriate times, morphed from “To Our Son And His Girlfriend” through “To Our Son And His Fiancee” to “To Our Son And His Wife”. Also, the fact that (rather than cards with double-entendre jokes and stupid pictures of ducks favoured in my family), these cards tended to be several pages long, and to have a great deal of printed text included in them. Finally, the Apocalypse; a conversation with my mother-in-law about Christmas cards.
We’d gone round for a Christmas Eve dinner, and she and I were having one of those kitchen conferences you always have after a big event, and she mentioned how much the cards we’d given them mattered to her. “All those special words,” she told me. “I’m not bothered about presents at all, it’s lovely of people to remember but I wouldn’t mind a bit if they hadn’t – but the cards are what makes it really special. I get all choked up reading the verses inside them, and knowing you’ve chosen those words just for us.”
Reader, I almost expired on the spot with shame, because (and I’m not proud of this. In fact I’m mortified) the only time I ever read the verses written in greetings-cards is so I can laugh at them. It was actually possible I might have had a little chuckle at some of the more florid greetings in front of my mother-in-law. I felt like I’d just been to church and openly laughed at the sermon – except that even in my most fiercely unbelieving moments, I’ve never sunk that low. Or as if, after watching a friend leave the steak I’d just served her and laughing at her fussy eating habits, I’d realised several years after she finally stopped coming round that she was, and had always been, a vegetarian. Or as if I’d just got into my late thirties and only just discovered it actually wasn’t okay to go to work in just your underwear.
Christmas cards for people you’re going to see on Christmas Day. I just don’t get it, and I never have. Thing is, now I know I’m the weird one here. As a result, my Christmas-cards-for-near-relatives obliviousness has been replaced with Christmas-cards-for-near-relatives blind panic. I spend hours worrying about cards, and looking at cards, and buying cards, and writing cards, and watching cards being opened, and scrutinising the reactions to see if I’ve got it right. I suspect I’m madly over-compensating, but that’s because I have no internal compass telling me where to draw the line. I once actually cried in WHSmiths because I couldn’t find a card whose front featured the correct conjunction of the words “Granny”, “Grandad” and “Grand-daughter” for my (pre-literate) child to present to my in-laws.
How much does this stuff matter? I don’t know. Everyone else in my family knows; but I don’t. Is it a huge deal, to get a card printed with the word “Grannie” instead of “Granny”? Is it worse to get a card which spells their title wrong, or is it worse to jib out altogether and opt for “To my grandparents at Christmas”? And, when inspecting the verses inside, what exactly am I looking for? How do I assess the poetry of the Christmas-card? Is it better to have one that rhymes, or is blank verse preferable? What sort of themes should I look for? How do I grade the ones that go on and on over several pages, with each section of text separated from the rest by pretty golden ellipses? And how about the font – is the font important?
I have absolutely no idea. I am Christmas-card blind; I am deaf to the music of their meaning. I am a freak and an outsider and a social klutz. All I know is that half my family see things in these cards that I just don’t, and getting the right card matters.
Which gets me on to the point of this post, which is what you’re supposed to do with the damn things afterwards. Clearly these cards matter, but how much? Am I allowed to put them in the recycling, or is that as crass as cutting up my wedding-dress for dishcloths? And how far down the family tree am I expected to go? Do I have to keep cards from relatives I couldn’t even pick out of a police line-up?
I’ll say it again; I have absolutely no idea. And, in a pathetic over-compensation for my total absence of social knowledge on this question, I keep all of them. Every single last one.
This is not a consequence-free decision. Because of my inability to instinctively know what to do about cards, we have an entire antique wooden chest that lives on our landing, looks pretty nice until you open it up, and mostly contains cards. Am I getting this right? I have no idea. When we both die and our kids have to clear out the house, will they find the card archive and nod wisely and say, Ah. This is where she kept them, and then take them away to store them somewhere else? Or will they merely wonder what the hell I was thinking?