Twelfth Night, or Christmas Isn’t Over Yet

A quintessential British Christmas card: robin, post box, and snow

It’s Twelfth Night as I write this post, though the article probably won’t go live until the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  It’s lucky for me that the holiday has twelve whole days; it gives me a better chance of getting cards out before Christmas is officially over.

Christmas cards here are a bit different from Christmas cards in the US.  To start with, they are not a species of greeting cards, but (in British English) they are greetings cards.  There’s no logic to back up a choice of which phrase is better; you can easily make a case for either one.

There are plenty of contemporary images, too. Purchase of this fold-out version of the three wise men benefits the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution).

Then there are the images: where US cards show cardinals, British cards show robins.  That strikes most Americans as odd, since every schoolchild in the US knows robins fly south in the winter and reappear when the weather warms, so robins are symbols of spring.  We used to say that the line between north and south ran through our town in Kentucky, and just south of our house, because the robins disappeared from our neighborhood in the autumn, but lived year-around on the campus of a college less than a mile away.  British robins are found here year-round. They look like little round balls of fluff, but are known for being bold–the avian equivalent of those lapdogs who challenge dogs 10 times their size. So in the absence of cardinals, robins provide a red bird that looks nice against a snowy background.

(Not having the same robins here means that the shade Americans call robin’s-egg blue doesn’t exist by that name. British people talk about duck-egg blue, but it’s an altogether different shade, almost a green.)

Cherubim, as conceived by Gothic Revival designer William Burges. (I'm a Burges fan.) This card was sold in aid of English Heritage, which keeps up and manages historic buildings, such St Mary's Church, Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, where these angels feature on the ceiling of the chancel.

And while for-profit companies do make Christmas cards, by far the larger share of the cards I get have been sold by charities.  Maybe I’ve just got a different set of friends here, but in the US I mostly sent and received commercially made cards.  This year I made a list of where the charity cards came from: Riding for the Disabled (horseback recreation for disabled people), the Woodland Trust, the British Heart Foundation, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Katherine Mansfield Society, Children in Need, Oxfam, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, English Heritage (preserves historic buildings), Save the Children, the Mastocytosis Society and the London Library.

A scholar toiling away in the reading room of the London Library dreams of Christmas pudding. Sold in aid of the London Library, which commissions a new card each year; this one is by Quentin Blake, famous for illustrations of works by Roald Dahl, as well as many other cartoons and illustrations.

Some ex-pats complain about the British expecting everybody to send cards to everyone, even people you see every day, especially when so many cards are hand-delivered here to save postage.  My writing group’s Christmas party includes a table set up for cards, so everybody can come in and deal out cards into stacks, one stack for each member, and we all collect our cards on the way out.  One immigrant lady never fails to point out how silly this is, when you can say “Happy Christmas!” (more common here than “Merry Christmas”) to the others in person at the same event.  At a Christmas lunch for a different organization (which I won’t name) this year, a member went one better, signing Christmas cards at the table and sending them hand-to-hand down to recipients during the meal.

But the robin is a perennial favourite. Happy New Year!

I don’t mind sending Christmas cards to everyone—in principle.  In practice I virtually never manage to send the cards on time.  In fact everything about Christmas at our house happens later and later these days, so we often end up decorating the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day.  (Handy, because by Christmas Eve you can often get a £50 tree for £1.)

We can say that by decorating the tree as late as that we’re upholding tradition, but really we just haven’t gotten our act together.  You can do the same with judiciously choosing which traditional deadline for taking the decorations down you’ll observe: New Years, Twelfth Night, or even Candlemas (February 2).  And in that spirit of Yuletide expediency, we accept January 6 as the twelfth day of Christmas despite a competing tradition that puts the twelfth day on January 5.  Gives me one more day to get the cards out.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Twelfth Night, or Christmas Isn’t Over Yet

  1. Malcolm

    I think the robin has precedence over the cardinal for Christmas. There’s that poem:
    The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
    And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
    He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
    And hide his head under his wing.

    … which dates back to the 1500s at least. In my 1930s infancy our parents delayed installing and decorating the tree until after we were asleep on Christmas Eve, so that we awoke to an additional wonder, beyond the filled stocking. But from about age 8 onward it became more exciting to help hang the baubles–always on Christmas Eve.
    In Hollywood movies of the 1940s American trees seemed to vanish behind and beneath an overload of decorations. Our trees tended to have a sparser furnishing of semi-natural ornaments–reassembled walnut shells sprayed gold or silver, open pine cones ditto, marzipan Santas, white-chocolate snowmen … plus, of course, the usual glass baubles and mini-candles (real), and cotton-wool (US cotton) balls of ‘snow.’. But the trend lately has been toward the Hollywood ideal.
    And how about e-cards? Didn’t you get any? Since most of our friends have retired they seem to have become the medium of choice–except for those friends who use the mail to say, “Thanks for your news round-up. Will try to write soon …” (soon being the most elastic feast in the calendar).
    And–yes–what about those annual roundups?

  2. Candida

    The funny thing about the robin is that it was first called the redbreast – named for it’s appearance, like the blackbird and the blue tit (tête, I think). Robin got attached as a friendly sort of “everyman” name, much as it got given to the archetype of Robin Hood, but with the added bonus of alliteration. Bit by bit, the redbreast dropped away, and the sort of meaningless robin remained. And then got passed on, minus the redbreast, to a completely different species over the water.
    Your cardinals are lovely, but with a name and colour like that there would probably have been an extermination programme over here during the reformation. Or perhaps under Cromwell – who tried to ban Christmas as a holiday, so was clearly not entirely sane, as well as being no fun at all.
    I can’t understand the habit of giving cards to people you see all the time either – unless they are dropped through neighbours doors with a drinks invite scribbled in them in the pre-Christmas rush. That we do! But school pupils giving them to each other – and then getting together over the holidays anyway – or people in work who won’t see each other for the ice age of four days or so – why? It seems to be a girl thing, my boys at least actively seek to dissuade it.

  3. Redshoes

    Oh Mef, the illustrations were brillient! If I could get cards like these I might accually send them again. Great post by the way

  4. I have difficulty getting my cards out, too. I live in the US (in Arizona). For several years (and three postal-rate increases!) I have had a stack of Unicef cards that already have been stamped,so they’re worth too much money now to just give them away.. I did not get them sent this year, either, and we have another postal increase later this month. So, if they go out next year, they’ll have to have yet another 1-cent stamp attached.

    As for the European Robin, there are not many birds any cuter, so I can see why it’s often included on British Christmas cards. Yes, our Northern Cardinal is a beautiful bird, especially viewed in the snow, but our poor American Robin is an inelegant looking bird. European settlers to the new world gave it the name “robin” out of nostalgia for the darling little bird they left behind. It has the same color pattern, after all, but there the resemblance ends. Even its scientific name is cumbersome: Turdus migratorius. Our American Robin is quite like the European Blackbird, even belonging to the same family and genus. Just not Christmasy at all.

  5. If only my beastly other half didn’t insist on using Christmas cards as a facade to our bookshelves, then I might enjoy cards, but as it stands I think Cromwell had it right.

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