I love a good Christmas card as much as the next non-atheist. However, this year I’m bracing myself against a biting wind that is flapping envelope covers of late. The harbinger of pure Christmas card evil is that particular genus that features the sender and their family.
When did it become acceptable for the sender to ‘star’ on a Christmas card, as if they were part of the original Christmas story? Yes, okay, if you had some kind of ancestral link to Judea 1AD that is directly relevant to the Christmas story, mind, it may be understandable. Perhaps your ancestor helpfully pointed the Magi to the nativity location? Maybe a forebear shook his head at Mary and Joseph to indicate they had no room free for the Christ child (classy, by the way). But other than that, how about don’t do it?
Indeed, so prevalent was the me-mass card last year, with politicians and ordinary folk both at it, I began to suspect that ‘normal’ cards had seen their last winter. Queues of redundant robins and father Christmasses, swarming from the Hallmarks and WHSmiths and onto the mean, bleak streets populated by narcissists, evidently. Is it possible that the same insidious sense of self-promotion observed in today’s social media is hijacking our season’s greetings?
I first encountered an early version of the me-mass card many years ago, in what I can only describe as a visual mugging. Upon opening an envelope from a recently-married university friend, I found a folded piece of paper. How nice, I thought, she’s taken the trouble to write. However, on unfolding it I found it to be a printed newsletter surmounted with a colour family portrait – my friend plus new husband plus their baby. And we weren’t talking ‘here’s a snapshot of us all having a family meal and being normal, and here are a few scrawled paragraphs because I care about you’. No. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. This was completely different.
The experience was as natural and human as reading company in-mail. Categorised under subtitles were the year’s achievements in domestic life, career, school news and church involvements if you please. At the top of the page, all of them smiled at me with the kind of whiteness of tooth that has more to do with skinny-dipping around Chernobyl than dental hygiene. Both my friend and her husband also looked like they might be undergoing a silent ventriloquist dummy experience, if you know what I mean.
Gone from her letter was the honesty of defeat, the cavities of struggle, the halitosis of illness and the ulcers of disappointment. Her comms had been swept by someone who used to work for Stalin, obviously, leaving a relentless propaganda of happiness and fulfilment, surmounted by Aardman-style smiles.
Surely one of the joys about a traditional card – and letter if you’re lucky – is that it acknowledges the receiver. It expresses concern and wonders what you’ve been up to, sending good wishes about your health, your work and your disastrous love life. It may reminisce upon some happy time – that magic only shared memories can conjure.
That crested newsletter, by contrast, was more like an emission: a snort, a grunt. It was not dialogue, but monologue. It was not personal, because it had been sent to others, and it was demoralising in its relentless happiness. Like Le Carre’s Percy Alleline, it seethed with goodwill.
People who are depressed, or struggling, or questionning, or broken, or flooded out of their homes don’t send me-mass cards unless they want to scare and upset friends and family. Similarly, I have never received nor seen festive portraiture from a single person. ‘This is me, eating cheese over the sink with my Santa hat on. Shit-faced. Happy Christmas.’
And the trend isn’t confined to Christmas. In fact, the most disturbing card I have ever seen was placed proudly in the home of a friend – mid-year. On its front were a happy couple, holding each other’s hands and smiling like they’d been snorting coke off each other all morning. Inside the card was the message: ‘Peter and Jane (names have been changed) – celebrating their one year wedding anniversary.’ And then underneath, was printed ‘we’re so happy and in love, and we’re having so much fun enjoying life together.’
Really – you’re sending that after one year? Anything can look relatively good after one year; like selling sub-prime debt, or Iraq – that seemed to be going ok. The only thing that would have made it worse would have been Bush and Blair sending a card together, featuring themselves.
Granted if the happy couple on that card were serial adulterers, compulsive bigamists or terminal cancer survivors, the card’s message could be seen in the light of humanistic triumph. Yet, sadly, that was not the case, and I was left in disbelief at the gloaty piece of uber-smuggness.
Is this sickness in the world of cards and letters symptomatic of changing generational values? My grandparents, who suffered through world war II and were bombed out of their home by the Nazis – would never have dreamed of inflicting their peace-time ‘happiness’ so brashly upon others. Firstly, because they considered the feelings of other people in the way they lived, and secondly, because happiness – real happiness – is private, just like grief.
Theirs wasn’t the generation that took selfies of itself when it should have been saluting the passing soul of Nelson Mandela, for example. Granted, they didn’t have the technology to bleat about themselves in a constant drone of tweeting, posting and unedited self-obsession. They might have had the technical know-how to create it, but it took a more selfish generation to actualise it.
For me, the me-mass card is an indicator of junk thinking becoming the accepted norm. It’ll only polarise society at the worst possible time, when many of us are already struggling not to smile like lunatics with glassy stares, but just to get through our days in good grace. As our climate changes, and as religious extremism forces wars upon us – both public and private. And no, Mr Clegg, your child-drawn antlers and red noses on your me-mass card don’t detract from the obnoxiousness; they simply crown it in farce.
So please, keep your festive portraiture and propaganda and send me pictures of snowmen and robins and Christmas trees and the baby Jesus – hell, all year round. If it stops you sending anything else.
© Greta von Szabo 2015