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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.