Paper or e, it's keeping in touch
I bumped into a friend at the counter in my local Post Shop a few days ago. She expressed surprise when she saw what I was buying.
"You still send Christmas cards?" she asked. It was as much an exclamation as a question.
Well yes, I do. The expression on my friend's face suggested she wasn't sure whether to regard me with admiration or pity. Certainly my habit of sending cards marks me as a bit of a dinosaur in the digital era, when so many people communicate via Facebook, Twitter and email.
But I find it hard to abandon old traditions. I reckon that the older you get, the more you value relationships, particularly the ones that go back a long way. (A more cynical explanation is that as you age, you cling to your surviving friends with a rising sense of desperation; but let's not go there.)
You also realise that, like plants, relationships have to be nurtured. A Christmas card is one way of keeping friendships watered and fertilised.
Most of the people on my Christmas card list have been friends for decades. My tattered address book, with its multiple scribbled amendments and updates, is a reminder of how far back we go. It's a veritable artefact.
I don't see much point in sending cards to people I see frequently, but if they're geographically distant, a card may be the only regular contact we have.
One sign of the times is that I address about a dozen cards to old friends and former colleagues who are among the half million-odd New Zealanders who now call Australia home.
A card is also a way of cementing and perpetuating family links. I have cousins whom I'm not necessarily close to in a personal sense, but I like to keep in touch, even if only once a year.
Call it a gesture of familial solidarity, if you like. My mother came from a large Irish Catholic family and drummed it into us from an early age that blood is thicker than water.
What's more, the miracle of the digital printer makes it possible, with a simple click on the "print" key, to include with your card a letter bringing friends and whanau up to date with the important events in your life: the arrival of new children or grandchildren, overseas trips, renovations to the house, health issues, that sort of stuff (but preferably not complaining bitterly about the result of the elections, as one disillusioned friend did in his Christmas letter after Labour was tipped out of office in 2008).
Some people snort with derision at Christmas letters. They call them "brag letters" or dismiss them as impersonal.
What the hell, I say. They don't need to be brag letters (though I've seen a few that fell into that category). And what does it matter if all your friends get the same one?
I'm sure that my late father, who would sit down every December and painstakingly write a long Christmas letter to all his geographically scattered siblings – he being from a generation that shunned toll calls as extravagant and kept in touch with two letters a year, on birthdays and at Christmas – would have relished the technology that we take for granted today.
If anyone feels insulted by being sent a duplicate letter, they've never told me. In any case, it's always possible to add a hand-written personal note lest sensitive recipients feel slighted.
An email, on the other hand, can seem impersonal. When someone receives a card it tells them the sender values their friendship enough to have gone to a stationery shop, chosen an appropriate card, taken the trouble to write a message – however brief – and spent another 60 cents on postage.
That conveys a more personal touch than an email. Yet you can understand why some people have resorted to sending Christmas greetings digitally.
It's immediate, convenient and costs nothing. At times, I've taken the easy option myself of sending an animated e-card (the digital equivalent of the traditional card) – but on birthdays, never at Christmas, and usually only when the recipient is overseas and I've left it too late to send a card in the mail.
The best e-cards are clever and quite charming, if a little cute and cheesy in the American manner. It would be interesting to know what their impact has been on sales of traditional cards.
I certainly get the feeling that the old-fashioned, snail-mail Christmas card is on the way out.
The reaction of my friend at the Post Shop suggests it's already on its way to being viewed as a historical curiosity.
This year we've received fewer cards than in the past. Of course this may mean that old friends have given up on us as no longer being worth the effort, but I prefer to think that it's due to the expense.
Global financial uncertainty has led people to cut back on non-essentials, and Christmas cards are probably one.
I've also noticed that while cards are much cheaper than they used to be, doubtless due to the fact that most are now imported from China, the selection seems to get more limited with every year.
I always admire the beautifully designed cards some of our friends send us and wonder where the heck they find them.
There must be some secret source whose whereabouts is known only to the initiated, rather like the fabled elephants' graveyard.
I roamed from shop to shop looking for decent cards this year and ended up with a very humdrum selection.
The New Zealand-designed ones in particular were crudely illustrated.
I like to choose a mixture of religious and non-religious cards, the former for friends and relations who celebrate Christmas chiefly for its biblical significance and the latter for those whose enjoyment of the holiday is strictly secular.
But I was appalled to find, in one pack I bought, several cards that made no reference to Christmas at all, but used the anodyne Americanism "Happy Holidays" – a hideously wishy-washy expression created to get around religious sensitivities.
To anyone to whom I accidentally sent such a card before spotting that ghastly wording, my apologies; it won't happen again. And to everyone else, best wishes for a happy and relaxed Christmas.