The tradition of sending Christmas cards has proved to be gratifyingly resilient, even if it is probably upheld mainly by old folk.

Many people sneer at so-called snail mail, but the old-fashioned cards continue to turn up in countless letterboxes at this time of the year.

Personal Christmas cards, as distinct from more formal ones sent by businesses to clients, are tangible symbols of enduring friendship, respect and goodwill.

Firms started printing Christmas cards in big numbers in Britain in the 1870s when exchanging them became a fashionably simple but effective means of expressing good wishes for valued friends and relatives.

It is perhaps surprising that this habit has survived for so long in the face of not only the ready availability of instant electronic communications but also the influence of some of the doctrines of political correctness, which wrongheadedly characterise customs of Christian origin as offensive to people of other faiths or no faith.

Of course, Christmas now is more of a secular celebration of family and goodwill than a religious festival for many Australians, but this is no reason for denying its origin. There are many types of Christmas cards available to reflect a range of views, from the profound to the embarrassingly profane.

Most people who send them are probably careful about the types they buy, because their choices speak for them and their beliefs and principles. For example, anyone who chose the “happy holidays” greeting would be exposed to accusations of succumbing to politically correct pressure to avoid the use of the word “Christmas”.

This is a deplorable Americanism that takes Christmas out of Christmas and should be avoided. Similarly, the neutral “season’s greetings” does not do the job and smacks of timid compromise.

The traditional wording is to wish people to whom cards are sent a “merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year”.

This is simple and more than adequate for the purpose, though it seems some people are uncomfortable with the word “merry”.

The English novelist and wordsmith Kingsley Amis argued persuasively that “merry Christmas” was the correct form and that “happy Christmas”, which many people preferred, was wrong. He wrote: “Merry means among other things ‘given over to merrymaking or becoming merry, perhaps with the assistance of alcohol’, a festive interval in the yearly round. There is a connection with the word mirth . . . unlike merry, happy connotes a settled state, one that might well last a whole year.”

This is good advice, though some people will not agree with it. There is no strict protocol of politeness or etiquette to do with the wording of Christmas cards so people follow their own rules and have to accept that they are judged by them.

However, it can be asserted unequivocally that anyone who sends a card with the abominable abbreviation “Xmas” on it invites and deserves censure, if not social isolation. This wretched term is a desecration of language.

It also should be considered bad form to use Christmas cards for purposes other than sending the relevant greetings and good wishes. A parenthetical paragraph added to the greetings on a card about, say, the results of the sender’s tests for prostate problems amounts to a jarring and possibly offensive distraction from, or contrast to, the message of goodwill. It suggests that the opportunistic sender is too lazy and insensitive to send his news separately by some other means.

Then there is the dubious practice of including with each Christmas card a summary of the sender’s year, another American custom that seems to be taking hold here. Again, it is questionable whether a Christmas card is a proper vehicle to be used for burdening its target with accounts of the sender’s triumphs and disappointments.

The main objection to this practice is that it puts the focus on the sender, rather than on the recipient and on the ostensible message of goodwill.

A similar level of self-absorption is detectable in homemade Christmas cards on which senders contrive to feature pictures of themselves and their families.

Such practices devalue the tradition of sending Christmas cards, which are tokens of enduring civility. However, they amount to mere lapses from courtesy, compared with the slide into barbarism threatened by the widespread adoption of the use of crass, commercial “e-cards” that are sent by email.


© The West Australian

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