I’m writing this blog in between writing my Christmas cards. This set me thinking about Christmas cards and their use and significance to a novelist.
This was the first commercial Christmas card, commissioned in 1843. It featured a jolly family celebration, snow scenes and Nativities came along much later. The first cards were expensive, 1/- a throw (which was a lot of money in those days), but the introduction of the Penny Post three years earlier meant at least sending them was cheap and Christmas cards were here to stay. It took the introduction of the postcard to make Christmas card sending really popular. Soldiers sent embroidered, patriotic cards from the Front in the First World War. Many families, including mine, kept these carefully preserved in albums, the thick paste board covers ensuring the colours stayed sharp and bright.
In the UK, Christmas cards account for almost half of the volume of greeting card sales, with over 668.9 million Christmas cards sold in the 2008 festive period (or so it says on Wikipedia). Cards are a ubiquitous part of our Christmas preparations, they are also among the most ephemeral, sent and received in a matter of a week or two, displayed for perhaps a fortnight more before being taken down and put into the re-cycling once the Christmas period is over.
Although their presence is fleeting, they carry a record of passing time, the cycles of our lives. As we get older, addresses change, people become lost to us, or names are crossed out of the address book as elderly relatives die. Friendships that were once important, a vital part of our younger lives, are reduced to a few lines in a card, ‘Must write!’, ‘Must keep up!’ although we know that we won’t put pen to paper until another year rolls round. E cards are even more ephemeral, nothing to put up, display, or keep and I always feel rather foolish sitting in front of a computer, watching a tree illuminate itself, or some other Christmas scene unfold. Round Robins are far more interesting, a glimpse into other people’s lives, a record of their year gone by, as well as providing valuable insights into character: what kind of person sends one in the first place? And why would they say that?
Few Christmas cards are kept, but those that are can be hugely evocative and very useful to a novelist. They act as a passport back into our own past lives: the design, the signature, the message inside, take us to a particular time, to friendships forgotten, reminding us of who we were then. They can also provide a way in to the recent past. A single card found in amongst a pile of family papers. There is no personal message inside, just names that you don’t recognize, but the card throws up a whole list of questions, heavy with possibilities. Who kept this card? Why? Who is it from? When was it sent? What does it signify? For a writer, these questions are highly redolent, rich with potential. When there is nobody to ask any more as to the provenance, we are free to make up the answers ourselves. There could be a novel in there, no doubt, but I haven’t got time to think about that now. I’ve got cards to write.