Somehow, that time of the year has crept up on me again. Not Christmas — I love Christmas — but Christmas card season, which has to be got through first.
Sending festive greetings through the post trumps a text or email message every time. But oh boy, the stress they cause — a constant niggle away at the back of my mind from mid-November onwards.
Have I bought enough? Who should be on ‘the list’, and which names I can reasonably knock off from last year.
Then there’s the shock at the post office — is that really what a stamp costs these days? Not to mention the dreadful guilt when an unexpected card drops through the letterbox, perilously close to the big day, from someone I’ve forgotten altogether, meaning I must rush a late card into the post, hoping it won’t be the one that arrives after December 25 — the ultimate social faux pas.
Sandra Howard (pictured) shared the stress she feels from receiving and sending festive greetings such as Christmas cards
Once you’ve got them all sent, there’s the next headache of finding somewhere to put all the ones you receive in return.
The horror of all this peaked for me when my husband, Michael, was leader of the Conservative Party. We’d receive thousands — you can imagine what a nightmare it was trying to find places for them all!
I’d hang row upon row across the walls, with every conceivable surface covered in them.
Throughout December I could often be found stretching to put up yet another length of ribbon, or scrabbling around the room after them, each time a draught from a door opened too quickly had wafted a couple of hundred onto the floor.
About as many as we received had to be sent out to colleagues, constituents and even political foes — as well as to family and close friends.
Michael was terribly busy, so I would help out with all the signing. We had protection officers back then driving us around, and I’d be in the back seat scribbling down our names inside enormous cards, which I’d pass over to Michael who’d do the same as he rested them on a stack of government papers.
Wherever we travelled, we’d take a load with us, signing them on trains and sitting up into the small hours getting through yet another batch.
Selecting the official card brought issues of its own — I vividly remember 2005, when Michael kindly agreed that rather than commission a picture for the front, we’d use one produced by Addaction, a drug and alcohol treatment charity I support.
Sandra questions why corporations bother to send Christmas cards if they aren’t going to use a human signature (file image)
It was such an innocent image — a group of penguins standing tall together in the snow. But when we sent it out, the Press took one look and out came the headline: ‘Out in the cold’.
These days, things are a little more relaxed and we send out a couple of hundred between us.
Michael’s very good at signing them nowadays — my job is to find the cards we receive a home (and to pass them on to artistic friends in January, who make lovely collages out of them, so they’re not wasted).
This task brings new challenges now that we’re a little more advanced in years.
The older you get, the more likely it is that opening up just one afternoon’s worth of Christmas post will set you off on an emotional roller coaster. Often, cards come from people I only really hear from each December.
These missives feel more like dispatches from the past. Like the cards we get from the girls — who are now women — who babysat our now extremely grown-up children many decades ago. It’s such a joy to read about their own growing families and how their lives are panning out.
But their cards make me feel a great pang for the days when our own children were small.
Our lovely babysitters would tuck our little ones into bed, while Michael and I went off in our finery to one of the many constituency parties around Christmas time. But the very next card I open may give my thoughts a sorrowful turn. Too often these days, I look inside to see who it’s from and discover a solitary signature, which immediately tells me that since last Christmas two have sadly become one.
She admits the position of where she places the cards she receives depends on how festive they are
Whether that’s through ber-eavement or divorce, it’s not always made clear — but you can usually hazard a guess. It’s always wonderful to hear from old school pals, former colleagues and the never-forgotten constituents of Michael’s who, over the years, became really good friends.
And, of course, there are those rather grand cards from the political heavyweights who were part of my husband’s life when he was in government. I won’t begin to pretend that those aren’t rather fun to receive.
But oh, those dreadful corporate ones sent by companies that don’t have a single human signature on them. I open them and think: ‘Oh really, why bother?’
How much more valuable the money spent would have been as a charitable donation. What’s more, some worry that cards themselves are a product of the commercialisation of Christmas, eating up precious natural resources with the trees that must fall to make them.
That they become yet another thing you have to pay out for at this most expensive time of the year.
Still, I try to display them all, although what’s on the front does influence where they get placed around the house. I love the cards with robins on them — we get fewer of them these days — and have a special shelf for them on the kitchen dresser. They nestle among the plates and mugs every year on my robin redbreast shelf.
The less festive ones are relegated to a basket on the hall table. Just before our guests arrive for the party we hold for friends and neighbours each Christmas Eve, you’ll find me frantically swapping cards around, trying to make sure those sent by any friends coming are more prominently displayed in case they look out for theirs.
But there is, as any grandparent will tell you, one category of cards that will always take pride of place on the mantelpiece.
These are always handmade, and sometimes it’s impossible to make out whether you’re looking at a picture of a robin redbreast, Santa Claus or something that can’t possibly have any seasonal attributes at all.
They’re the efforts of our three youngest grandchildren — Jasper, who’s seven, four-year-old Theo and their little sister Layla, who’s two.
The sight of them encapsulates everything Christmas means to me: Family, the nostalgia of times long gone when I helped my own children make similar works of art; and the fact that Michael and I have so many wonderful people in our lives who care to send us any cards at all.