A tradition of sorts — opening Christmas cards on Boxing Day morning — allows for a measured entry into Christmastide. It signals the easing into those under-recognized ‘Twelve Days of. . .’ that begin (not end) with Christmas day. In ‘normal times’, the fevered run-up to ‘the day’ would be twenty-four hours removed. The equally frantic, Boxing Day assault on shops, this year at least is, like near everything else, a ‘virtual event’. A time to catch one’s breath and reflect on relationships, the connections one has retained, renewed, discovered in the past year.
As a child, the ritual of carded greetings began with the appearance of three or four binders on the dining room table, typically mid-October. Packed with samples of the year’s offerings from Hallmark and its ilk, these fat volumes would be scrutinized, the ‘possibles’ marked for later comparison, the ‘too similar to last year’s’ rejected — and choice for the year made. Message selected, font style and colour chosen.
To call my parents’ Christmas card list a list is gross understatement. This twenty-odd year catalogue of cards sent and received was akin to an accountant’s ledger — and every bit as meticulously maintained. What had started out life as a simple address book had long ago been repurposed as a register with double ruled columns for years: tics (greetings sent / received) or a wee ‘X’, adjacent names, if the gesture had not been reciprocated. Changes of address were recorded in my mother’s tidy script. Unreturned greetings were granted a two-year window — then ‘struck from the roll’, a neat line drawn through, margin to margin. There were very few lines, few ‘de-rostered’ entries.
Most decisions (to send or not to send) were slam-dunks. My parents had lived in the same town for much of the book’s two decades of existence. The core hadn’t changed much: too early for age to yet take its predictable toll, fifty years before the peripatetic pattern of today would manifest — lives were stable, settled, rooted. My father would work for the same company for forty-one years with relationships that only increased in number as his role expanded. He was well-liked and cultivated connections that lasted. My mother maintained an equally steady group friends built around clubs, church- and bridge-derived. By and large, friends, acquaintances were shared — so the calls were not complicated.
A few weeks later, a folding table would take up residence in the bay of my parent’s bedroom dormer, laden with boxes of cards and all the necessaries for the next act: father addressing, mother signing and inscribing the perhaps 150 personalized messages that would cement their connections for another year.
A statement of the obvious, 2020 has been an extraordinary year. Descriptors have found their way into everyday language with new and potent meaning: social distance, bubble, lockdown. . . Daily routines altered. Reflexive modes of greeting thwarted. Commonplace, ‘unconscious’ practices shifted to planned, choreographed events. . . a visit to the grocery store, an elevator ride, a chance encounter with a friend for coffee.
2020 has embraced its paradoxical side as well. In a year when social contact has become near synonymous with risk, creative solutions, work-arounds have become bastions against months of personal isolation. Virtual and intentional have supplanted actual and automatic, cavalier, casual, or ‘mindless’ — not as weak sisters, but as viable surrogates.
In our household, choir practice night became multiple quartettes, members safely spaced in the church gardens, on scheduled rota; services pre-recorded, then live-streamed. A professional practice that was to have seen its graceful wind-down this year, has been reinvented, an online ‘paper route’, my wife’s affectionate reference. Music lessons, far from being sacrificed, have doubled in number. Our adult kids and their partners work from home, have discovered the joys of solitary running and ‘design it yourself’ marathons, Youtube recital, choral creativity. ‘Zooming’, whatever that used to mean, has become 2020’s new verb. The platform and its like have brought an intensity, efficiency, and intimacy to gatherings that the in-person equivalent could never achieve.
And so in times of enforced separation, isolation, the intention to connect has become all the more compelling; not least, for me, in a desire to renew relationships that had fallen fallow. Recommencing long lapsed friendships took on a new urgency — never more accessible than with the assistance of (aptly-named) social media.
A landmark birthday ‘gathering’, scaled to conform to regulated guidelines, was celebrated with emailed tributes in lieu of hugs and face to face good wishes. Even our Christmas ‘cards’, theme and greeting selected online, were ‘sent’ virtually.
Equally though, sitting before the accumulated wealth of carded greetings this Boxing Day morning, I’m transported to the final and most satisfying piece of this now six decades old memory: the thrill and anticipation of each envelope opened, each message shared, each connection renewed. In this year of detachment, disorientation — the familiar, the touching of something real, the closing of the circle.