Not even a pillowy panettone or the most lethal of brandy butters can beat the thud of a round robin letter on the doormat. It’s that perfect concoction of mundane detail (how the electric car is faring) and low-level bragging (news of a child’s Oxbridge acceptance letter) that make them so tantalising, the ultimate yuletide indulgence. You simultaneously snigger at how on earth this distant relation could think you’d be interested in the trials and tribulations of their daughter's grade eight trumpet exam, while combing through it with the diligence of a lawyer. If our Instagram addiction has taught us anything, it’s that we are, after all, interested in the seemingly irrelevant status updates of day-to-day life. And here it is in its purest form. A stream of consciousness about all life's wonderful banalities, peppered with badly disguised boasts.
The alternative, of course, is a soulless card addressed ‘To you all’ with an illegible signature tail ending it, which musters the same level of festive goodwill as a business card being slapped into your hand. It might as well say ‘I’m still alive’ — which, on second thoughts, shouldn’t be sniffed at. Pandemic or not, you’re unlikely to have seen the full roster of loose acquaintances who have qualified for your list from one Christmas to the next.
With all the efficiency of a corporate PA, my mother has mastered a clinically efficient middle ground. For each of her four daughters, whatever mine and my sisters’ years have entailed, she can condense events into one line (‘Madeleine – now married, living in Wiltshire').
But how ever sparing the sender is with their pen, it’s worth reading between the lines. As Jilly Cooper wrote in her 1986 tome How to survive Christmas: 'Couples who send you photographs of themselves surrounded by all their children are saying that a very sticky patch in their marriage has been circumnavigated.' Another to be on standby for is the recent divorcee. 'A husband who has walked out on his wife often sends you a photograph of himself surrounded by his laughing children, which can be translated as, "You may think I was fiendish to Samantha, but the children don’t,"' warned Jilly.
It was perhaps a savvy move, then, for Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds to break with the tradition of a Prime Minister’s family photo last year to throw their Jack Russell-cross Dilyn into the spotlight in the bleakest of locked down Christmases; a tinsel clad terrier is hard to overthink.
There’s something about an animal in the mix that manages to negate any amount of festive boasting. Take the racehorse trainer’s Royal Ascot winner artfully photoshopped with a piece of holly to make that triumphant June day relevant in the depths of winter. Or the old trick of using the Labrador’s voice to tell the tale of the round robin letter, softening the blow of an assault of achievements.
But nothing can deter from the faux pas of sending a non-charity card; a blunder likely to evoke a silent tut as the recipient slowly turns the card over on opening it, scanning for clues of a worthy cause.
If my late grandfather could see the sad trickle of cards most millennials receive in comparison to his own generation’s haul, he’d pity the seemingly feeble state of our social circle. For him, the true marker of a triumphant Christmas was receiving enough cards to string around both the drawing and dining room, with his regimental card taking centre stage on the mantelpiece, flanked by those from his children. As his 90s beckoned, and the cards dwindled, he had no qualms in digging out last year’s selection to fill the gaps. And I don’t blame him; here was the chance to bask in a lifetime of friendships and colleagues. Whilst we might eschew the writing of them, who doesn't love to receive a card? All that generic festive well wishing on social media just can't compete with the thrill of paper, ink and stamps sent from afar.