Card tricks

By | 12 December 2011

So here we are, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.’ And sure as the tannoys start broadcasting an unrelenting diet of ‘Christmassy’ music and the tills start ringing – do they still do that? – for the annual spending splurge of everyone on the planet buying a present for at least half a dozen people, so the cards will arrive.
And what, we may ask, is the semiology of Christmas cards?
A Christmas card is surely not just a Christmas card: it signifies.  It’s quite exhausting contemplating how much.
Start at home, with your own cards – and some of the questions here can then be multiplied up to schools, and possibly other or associated businesses also.
For instance, are you still sending them at all?  Stamps are becoming eye-wateringly expensive, even at second class – think of your mum and dad, if they are alive ask them if they ever thought they would spend ten bob on a first class stamp.  The younger generation is highly likely to send universal emails and post no cards at all.  And there may be a group at the borders of the card-sending generation – ‘Of course!’ – and the one that doesn’t – ‘Of course not!’ – where annual decisions are made about which generation to mimic.  ‘Are you still sending cards? How quaint! ’ Yes, I can hear that at dinner parties in the city, if not actually in the shires.
If you’ve always sent them, and suddenly don’t, friends may think you’re dead, so probably in your first non-send year you will need to warn people of your new resolution – and that might as well be a card, mightn’t it?  Getting clear of them could take some time.
So let’s assume you do send them.  Large? Small ?  Last Christmas I saw cards for which the envelopes were barely big enough to carry the stamp as well as the address.  They looked faintly like the mini-books the Brontes produced, but less interesting.
Religious or not?  There is hardly time in an article like this to consider what ‘or not’ may embrace: everything from robins to post boxes, Santas to sleighs, vague messages about peace to endless fir trees, bauble or snow-clad, and – inexplicably – coaches and fours galloping through snowy villages in some nineteenth century image suggesting,  ‘I’ll be home for Christmas. . .’
Even religious cards come in endless permutations: Madonnas with babies, stables, shepherds with and without sheep, three kings on camels. We had two last year with just sheep on the front, looking suspiciously as if they might be in the Cotswolds, but the associative message still has resonance, even if you are left to yourself to provide the back story.
For each card, the recipient could be ‘reading’ a meaning beyond the fact that you remember them fondly.  If robins, are you agnostic?  If a religious card, are you actually a church member, if so which one?  Unless of course the recipient is Nigella Lawson, who famously admitted on TV to opening her cards standing over a bin, into which the card fell once read.  Not for her the ‘Ah, look, nice card from Auntie Flo!’ moment with cards festooning the mantelpiece.  She explained her cavalier attitude to the greetings cards as a defence of her décor – ‘They chose this, that’s their taste, not necessarily mine.  I don’t choose to have my home filled with examples of other people’s taste.’
Perhaps the last layer for the personal card is the question: is it a charity card? And if so, do you really support it, or did you just like the card?  We may be revealing much in such a choice – or, of course, nothing at all – ‘I just liked the cute teddy bear in the stocking!’
How much more is at stake for a school sendiing Christmas cards.  Most schools doing so acknowledge the card’s importance as a marketing tool.  These cards offer the world a ‘picture’ of the school which will be displayed on mantelpieces (pace Nigella) for possibly a month, given the early December break-up date of most independent schools.  Magic!
So how best to ‘represent’ the school to the outside world?
One way is having the art work done by a pupil, who is named inside and whose relatives can buy hundreds to keep forever.  Many schools will run competitions in the autumn term to provide the card design.  Mostly it’s painted, but increasingly photographers are popping up with snowy scenes, if not Santas, to show the diversity of what the school’s art department does.
But what to paint?  Sometimes it’s a view of the school.  Seldom is it a Madonna or a stable, and if it is it’s likely to be a primary or prep school child who paints it, but three kings have potential.  And often it’s some abstract but appropriate image and message – candle, dove, peace – for our increasingly secular times, when the school is inclusive of pupils of all faiths and none.
Photographers may find a school event upon which to focus – easier now than it would have been twenty years ago because so many people and school marketing departments  take photos all the time.  When someone in September asks, ‘Have you got a photo of the school in the snow – remember, that one day in February?’ such a photo will appear on your computer within the hour.  Or a shot of the Carol Service – all reverence and twinkling candles, or of the choir, or one angelic boy soprano standing alone, probably in white and scarlet, in a fabulous cathedral shortly to be filled with his soaring voice.
Charity card or not?  If a charity card, you will lose the personal touch of the vision of the school, its buildings, its pupils, its extensive curriculum, but  possibly gain in the statement of what you support (and if you do, should it be a different charity every year, and how do you choose it – by popular vote? By senior management discussion, by Head’s decree?)
A notable addition to the range of charities represented on the Moriarty mantelpiece in 2011 (and not discarded until Twelfth Night) was Help for Heroes, a charity which has expanded its operations to include greetings cards.  It’s a charity which has been much-supported by schools – I wonder how many made it their charity of choice for the cards?  If so, it would be a development –  until recently, I would have thought children’s charities more likely to benefit from schools’ patronage.
Of course, if making a charitable donation instead of sending cards at all – whether personally or on behalf of the school – really puts your money where your sentiments suggest.  And if you did, you’d want people to know, so you’d be sending texts and emails explaining what you have done – you see? You are younger than you thought.
Save the planet not using the paper, save money not posting them, save the time of writing and addressing them, save the risk of having your choice ‘misread’ – ‘Well I think that school looks like a prison!’ – save a child or a tiger  or help a hero instead.
Either way, I think I see change coming.  You could say, it’s on the cards.

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