Strange holiday habits of the British and of one wandering American

The attack of the Christmas cards has begun, and if we don’t deliver ours quickly we’ll have to leave the village. Come December, forget conversation, companionship, helpful acts, even love: Cards are the only measure of friendship. If we don’t give someone a card, they’ll think we don’t like them. Or that we’re such socially awkward clods, we’re not worth liking.

Actually, I’m making that up. I don’t know the thinking behind it is, although I do understand that Christmas cards are more important here than on any other part of the planet. Everyone gives them to everyone, and you have to do it. For all I know, everyone hates it but is as intimidated as we are. The entire country is running around buying and delivering cards only because they’re afraid other people will think they’re either awkward clods or hostile.

Whatever lies behind it, though, we’ve stocked up.

Season's greetings, y'all. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Season’s greetings, y’all. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Where we live, people sneak up to the door and push them through the letter slot. We don’t see the people, just the cards. We’ll be sitting around, our minds so sublimely at peace that we’re levitating inches above the floor, and flap, a card drops through the slot. We flop painfully onto the floor and pick ourselves up to collect the card, but by the time we open the door no one’s out there. Except for the signatures, which we recognize, they might as well be messages from the fairies.

People have a saying here: “Oh, she (or he) is away with the fairies.” (It always seems to start with “Oh.” Maybe that makes is wispier, more away-with-the-fairies-ish.) A number of people Wild Thing and I know could be, and have been, described that way, and maybe they’ve sent these back from wherever the fairies live. The fairies have a delivery service. That’s very thoughtful. But it only works at this time of year.

Okay, a few people deliver their cards in person. They stop in and have a cup of tea. Or they bring them to meetings and hand them around.  If you belong to a club or go to any regular activity, people will show up in December armed with cards and pass them out. Most people write name on the envelopes, which means they have to flip through them, once, twice, fourteen times, to find the right one. Some bring a few spares with no names in case they’ve forgotten anyone, or someone they didn’t expect shows up. It’s an odd mix of touching and impersonal when you get one of these.

It made us feel like awkward clods when we didn’t come with a stack of our own, so we’ve started bringing some (nameless, because we’re not well enough organized to predict who’ll be there). But bringing them makes me—although not Wild Thing—feel like a hypocrite. Not because I don’t normally send Christmas cards, but because handing them out this way strikes me as deeply weird.

I’m not going to try to justify that. It’s just one of those deep cultural weird things.

But I can’t talk about Christmas cards without talking about deep cultural weird things, so here we go: I grew up celebrating Christmas, but in a family of non-religious Jews. The kind of Jews who celebrated a non-religious Christmas. Our Christmas cards always said “Season’s Greetings.” I think that was to accommodate other people’s beliefs rather our own. I mean, we did celebrate Christmas, so I can’t see where saying “Merry Christmas” would be insensitive to our beliefs, but somehow I was left with the odd feeling that it would be. Were we such tender souls that we had to be careful not to insult ourselves? Not by a long shot, but don’t expect this to make sense entirely.

When I was old enough to send my own cards, I searched through box after box, reading the little tag on the back that said, if I was lucky, “Greeting: Happy Holidays.” Or “Season’s Greetings.” I’d settle for either one, although I like the second better. That search was a part of who I was. But it also made practical sense. My—and later our—friends included Christians, Jews, and atheists, and as time when on Buddhists, Muslims, some self-described pagans (no, don’t ask me what it means; my understanding of the word is that it’s what Christians called earlier religions, not what those religions called themselves, but if someone wants to call themselves that, it’s not up to me to call them something else), and some people I’ve left out because I’m not sure what they are. I’ve spent a good part of my life learning not to make assumptions and the learning’s never complete, but I don’t want to summarize where I’m not sure.

So Season’s Greetings it was, even though we all know a Season’s Greetings card is nothing but a disguised Christmas card. A more inclusive one, but still a Christmas card.

And then I moved to the U.K. Where I live now, way out in the country, I’m the only Jew of any description for miles around. I don’t know of any Muslims or Buddhists in the immediate area, and the pagans at least used to celebrate Christmas, whether they do anymore or not. Like the many people around here who aren’t religious, they come from Christian backgrounds, even if you have to go back several generations to find anyone who treated that as a religion. So Season’s Greetings cards are hard to find. And largely irrelevant, since after our first year here, when we sent cards to friends in the states and discovered that the postage cost a small fortune, we give them mostly to friends in the village. In other words, everybody we’re giving cards to celebrates Christmas—some with a religious bent and some without, but Christmas all the same. None of them, I’m sure, celebrates it with the complications that I bring.

And guess what? I still want my cards to say “Season’s Greetings.” It’s like my accent: It’s a part of who I am. I’m a Season’s Greetings kind of person, living in a Merry Christmas kind of place. (I have no idea why I’m capitalizing that except that it’s capitalized on cards, so it becomes a habit. This is what happens to copy editors when they retire: They do all kinds of inconsistent things, and they notice, and wince, and in my case leave some of them uncorrected. And find a perverse joy in that.)

Actually, people here say “Happy Christmas,” not “Merry Christmas.” But that’s a different complication.

Over the years, Wild Thing has alternated between impatience and understanding when I turned over box after box of cards to read the greetings printed on the back. Then she took up photography and we started making our own cards. They can say whatever we want.

Problem solved.

But we still have to sneak up on our friends and neighbors and shove the cards through their letter slots. Otherwise they’ll think we don’t like them.

Or something. I don’t know what they’ll think, but I do know we don’t want them thinking it.

So whatever you celebrate, Season’s Greetings.

40 thoughts on “Strange holiday habits of the British and of one wandering American

  1. I LOL’d at the part about the people bringing blank spares. I get that. Heaven forbid forgetfulness should cause a deep social rift.

    If it weren’t for real estate agents and my dentist, I wouldn’t get any cards. Well, that’s not exactly true. My immediate (as in 15 paces from door to door) neighbour sends a card. In the post. Which is a nice gesture, but somehow odd since I have never reciprocated. I guess it is a compulsion.

    All the best this Christmas Season, Ellen, to you and yours.

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    • Thank you. And to you.

      And that is funny about the neighbor sending your card in the mail. Maybe he/she/they think(s) slipping it in the mailbox would be too–I don’t know. Intrusive, maybe?

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        • Difficult question, and I’m not sure I have the answer. I do remember hearing, eons ago, that mailboxes are officially the property of the US Post Office, although they don’t buy them or install them, so it may not be true. But along w/ that bit of (mis?)information went the belief that it’s technically illegal to leave things in them that weren’t mail, although I doubt anyone ever bothers to enforce it. All of which is a complicated way of saying that I don’t know.

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  2. This is brilliantly observed and superbly written and, as a native Brit, I can confirm it is completely and utterly accurate. The whole thing drives me so mad that I write barely a handful of cards these days. So I’m now getting very used to being given lots – or receiving them in the post from near neighbours – but not having any to hand out myself. It doesn’t feel too uncomfortable really. Because of course the other thing you also have to remember about us Brits is that we are far too polite to comment directly about not getting Christmas cards from you (though there may be a lot of grumbling and tut-tutting going on behind my back). As a foreigner, you must surely have the perfect excuse not to join in with it all!

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    • Oddly enough, as a foreigner I feel far more inclined to join in than I would if I’d been born here. Something about being an outsider makes a person hesitant to be–well, an outsider. No, it doesn’t make sense, but there it is.

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  3. Brilliant. I prefer to only send cards. That’s my whole christmas effort. The principal is to send them to people that I don’t get to see though. It’s very funny to give them to people that you do see.

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    • Wild Thing and send Season’s Greetings in return.

      Periodically, I’m sure we do forget someone. As far as figure out, what everyone does is pretend it didn’t happen, so then it’s all okay.

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  4. I started with the e-cards and gradually dropped the real-world Christmas cards altogether. If you’ve never seen them, Jacquie Lawson does some marvelous animated ones. (https://www.jacquielawson.com/) People seem to actually enjoy them. The kiddies like the advent calendar and it’s all so very easy! (That’s the best part.)

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  5. Your missives bring back so many memories, plus my never-ending “homesickness” for my UK home and friends…that I’ve packed and unpacked my bag several times knowing that….wishing doesn’t always make it so. I do so enjoy ever so much your accounts of a lived life amongst those whose rules and formalities make life not only an adventure…but a journey. Carry on….

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  6. Another brilliant masterpiece of exquisitely descriptive, thoughtful and funny writing. Keep up the excellent work Your Notes are a pleasure to read.

    Ellen Hawley posted: “The attack of the Christmas cards has begun, and if we don’t deliver ours quickly we’ll have to leave the village. Come December, forget conversation, companionship, helpful acts, even love: Cards are the only measure of friendship. If we don’t give someo”

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  7. Ha ha this is so true. When my husband and I bought our first house in the UK we got a Christmas card through the letterbox from almost every neighbour on the street even though we hadn’t met most of them and they didn’t know our names! Of course, being British I felt I had to reciprocate and I wrote a card out for every house, but because I didn’t know who was who I just put the house numbers on and signed them from us. Looking back it was totally pointless, I never did meet half of them for the two years we lived there!

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  8. Haha… Ellen, you’ve hot the nail on the head! The whole UK Christmas card thing is ALL a bizarre mix of touching and impersonal! I still feel oddly uncomfortable about it and I’m a 39 year old native Brit! … P.S. Season’s greetings to you

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  9. Haha! I guess it’s all about tradition. No matter how forward we move in our lives we still feel rooted to our old ways. We believe in sending a card instead of meeting and greeting each other. It’s the same way that social media work today. We LOL over someone’s comment/post/pic on FB but we hardly smile at someone or avoid an eye contact when we actually meet them at the grocery.

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  10. Strange holiday habits of the British and of one wandering American.
    This blog goes to show that ethnicity has as many layers as good mille-feuille, or at least lasagne. Ellen , you are right, Christmas cards (nobody calls them holiday cards, at least not here) illustrate this beautifully. I am from the British middle-class, ‘if I do not send a card how will I know that I exist ‘ tradition. Equally I prefer Seasons Greetings or, even better the ones that say Seasons Greetings in more languages that I can recognise, this, as Ellen says, comes from the secular Jewish tradition, and a fear that for a Jew to send a card saying Happy Christmas to a Christian could be offensive to the recipient, in extreme cases giving rise to a pogrom. Than there is the picture. Even if you cannot get the greeting right, Madonnas, Nativities, Shepherds and Magi are out, but what about angelic musicians? Cards must be home-made, political or charitable and you have to check on the charity. This is the left-wing tradition I think.

    All the same I need some kind of mid-winter celebration. It is a dreary time of year, even in lovely Cornwall. The nights are long and damp, the winds blow, the gardens, though greenish, are less exuberant than at other times. I’m ready for parties, music, candles, baubles and sweeties. And as my brother Martin pointed out, what is a Chrismas tree but an upside-down menorah?

    So Ellen, Wild Thing and anyone else who has read this far. Happy Christmas/Hanukah/Yule/Wassail/Diwali/New Year/Saturnalia. May you all have as exactly much fire-light/family/food and drink as you would like, and no more.

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    • Now that you mention it, my parents did send cards saying Season’s Greetings in more languages than I could recognize. From Unicef, I think. Thanks for the good laugh, and a happy everything to you as well.

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  11. Lovely to hear that someone has similar musings to my own. My dilemma is … that I have to send the appropriate card to some fifty old and new appropriately addressed friends… there has to be a cat on it for the cat obsessed and a dog for the doggy ones… but the right sort of dog of course – can’t be a Westie if they have a rottweiller – and vice versa , if religious then there should be three wise men or such like… atheist… a christmas tree would be acceptable- although is that pagan? think it is merely something to do with Prince Albert – so pagan peace and love, or is that the card for my old hippy friends(oh maybe the CND emblem with holly) – no matter the dove serves both… should I send to the ex Jehovah Witnesses …. I know Christmas still traumatises some of them – so it has to be “happy holidays” because according to my beloved one (ex Witness) it was said down at the brotherhood Hall one year that it was ” no sin to make use of a bird at Christmas” – I have put him right on that one – vegetarians like myself will not welcome a picture of a trussed turkey -of course on the subject of food – which we were… teetotallers – (B’Hais and the odd methodist) there should be no champagne glasses on said card …. and if it is a card for my cat… leave out the glitter and tinsel – he will just eat them both with relish… and then excrete sparkling residues somewhere – which is interesting … enough said – I could go on all night …

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