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Playing your cards right at Christmas time

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A well-meant festive gesture has become a social minefield, writes Brian Viner

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Photo: Kate Leith

If you haven't yet written and sent your Christmas cards, then it's probably hanging over you, akin to putting the bins out, only much more time consuming.

That's how I see it, anyway, which I realise gives me a whiff of Ebenezer Scrooge. And of course, actual modern-day Scrooges must be reeling at the dramatic rise in the cost of stamps.

The British are expected to send 800 million Christmas cards this year, which is down on the billion sent in 2005, but still adds up to an awful lot of expenditure. Moreover, research by Royal Mail suggests that the British are standing defiant in the face of the increased cost of stamps and that the average person will send 19 cards in 2012, up from 15 last year. Whoever that average person is, I envy him or her. I have more than 50 cards still to send.

We have a Victorian entrepreneur called Henry Cole to thank for this expensive annual ritual - or, if you prefer, to blame. Cole conceived the idea of sending commercial greetings cards at Christmas, and in 1843 he commissioned an artist, John Callcott Horsley, the brother-in-law of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to design the first one. Horsley's artwork was controversial; over the message ''A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You'' it featured a family, including a young child, drinking wine. The burgeoning temperance movement was appalled, yet this failed to kill off the concept. Here we are, 169 years later, revising the Christmas card list to include the people we met on holiday in Corfu in 2002, who didn't send us a card last year or the year before, but have discombobulatingly done so this time. It has become more of a pantomime than Mother Goose.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy sending Christmas cards to friends I rarely see, and it's nice to receive them, too, although I confess that the pleasure of getting cards is heightened by the judgmentalism to which I subject the sender. My wife and I have an annual tut-tutting ritual when we open cards that exist only to raise money for the likes of stationers and booksellers WH Smith or department store Marks & Spencer. Can't everyone see that this multibillion-pound extravaganza must at least be made to benefit charities? After all, the essence of sending Christmas cards is to show that we're thinking of others, so, plainly, we should all go the extra yard and contribute a few pence per card to Cancer Research or some other worthy cause.

The tutting also extends to those big, handsome, bespoke cards with the names and address of the senders in raised, scrolled type, designed to show how prosperous they've become. I'm sure that plenty of us are guilty of sending pricey-looking, ''haven't I done well?'' cards to those we'd quite like to impress, snobbishly reserving the cheap little square ones, with the slightly out-of-register picture of the three kings, for the milkman or postman. But there's a difference between that and the bespoke statement card, which sometimes even bears a photograph of the family on the front, looking disgustingly affluent. Or worse, contains a circular letter, listing the year's manifold achievements.

Every Christmas one of these letters arrives from old university friends of mine, always with details of both their homes - one in the UK, one in South Africa - at the top. ''This year we have spent a lot of time at our house in Cape Town,'' is the opening salvo, and the subtext is clear: we are more successful than you.

The other kind of circular letter is the one full of such banalities that you wonder why they bothered, unless it was perhaps motivated by the very Christian impulse to make you feel better about yourself. After all, when you read that in October they painted the garage door green, you realise that your own year has probably been rather more fruitful. That said, it's nice to include a bit of news with your card, but why not a short, personal, handwritten note, unless of course it's the ultimate cliche: ''hope to see you in 2013.''

So, the whole business is fraught with potential faux-pas, and nobody knows that better than Jo Bryant, etiquette adviser at Debrett's, the modern authority on all matters of etiquette, taste and achievement. She counsels: ''Choose your cards carefully and be cautious of risque humour or strong religious messages.'' Also, alluding to that unexpected late card from the Corfu acquaintances, she points out that ''all too often the days leading up to Christmas can turn into a tit-for-tat scramble of retaliatory card sending''. Her advice? ''Cut your losses - a Christmas card that arrives after the big day looks like a tawdry afterthought.''

True enough, and I also wonder what the point is of robotically dishing out cards to people you see every day? Our children are teenagers now, so we no longer have to stand at the school gate waiting as little Archie's mum flicks through her fistful of cards to find ours.

And we're also beyond the competitive card-sending years, when no Christmas passed without a card featuring what looked passably like a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci and on the back the proud declaration: ''Designed by Emily Plumtree, aged four.''

Little did old Henry Cole know, back in 1843, what he was starting. But he can't be faulted for sentiment.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, too.

London Daily Telegraph

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