THERE IS A NEW branch of popular psychology called the Analysis of Christmas Cards. That's right. Psychologists examine Christmas cards and analyse the senders' personalities thereby. Apparently, if you send a Christmas card with a robin and a snowscene, you are generally conservative. If you send a religious Christmas card, you are religious. If you send a flashy card you aspire to impress.
If you send a charity card, you are keen to display what a very charitable person you are. And of course the charity that you choose speaks volumes. Lefties always choose Unicef cards, and sentimentalists an animal charity.
I have my very own guidelines for sending Christmas cards, that is, when I organise myself to send them at all.
Quite often I operate on the Paradox Principle. For example, I will send some religious cards, but in general, more usually to secular-minded people. Religious people already have plenty of religious cards. It's the irreligious people who need the holy pictures, so the more they proclaim that they never darken the door of a church, the more impressively religious their Christmas card will be.
By the same paradox, send very tiny little cards to rich people, and send huge big expensive cards to poor people. The rich already have their mantlepieces weighed down with big expensive cards; what amuses them more is a cameo card. Poor people will appreciate a really big expensive card better anyway.
To right-wing friends, send cards purchased for left-wing causes. To the complacent bourgeois, cards which will benefit the victims of General Pinochet.
To self-regarding liberals, so keen never to be "judgemental" about anything, prolife cards sold to Save the Unborn Child.
Thus, too, people with very little interest in the arts should get a splendid reproduction from the National Gallery. Arty people, already overburdened with arty cards, should get cards supporting field sports. I try to send English friends cards with Christmas greetings in the Irish language.
The Paradox Principle can also be bracketed with the Surprise Element. To those who complain of your (my) habitual unpunctuality, and general disorganisation, send cards promptly in the first week of December. Send cards, anyway, to people who do not expect to hear from you. A surprise can be a pleasure.
Practise Christian virtue and send a really sweet-natured card to someone who has been perfectly awful to you. But send that one nearer to Christmas so that it is more difficult for them to return the compliment in time.
Resist the urge to send home-made or hand-painted cards, unless you can do it really, really well. Even if a child should be involved, the child should be artistically gifted for a home-crafted card to be acceptable.
There is a limit to paradox and surprise in the card-sending enterprise. I don't mind teasing liberals and agnostics, but one has to be more sensitive to the religious sensibilities of serious-minded Jews and Muslims. Sometimes they feel you are getting at them by being specifically Christmassy, so the catch-all "Seasons' Greetings" theme may have to replace the specific Christian allusion. Though I draw the line at employing the dreadful "Happy Holidays!" greetings now commonplace in America.
There are other areas where one needs to exercise sensitivity. Be careful about sending Madonna and Child cards to childless women, or Jolly Family cards to the lonely. It may trigger sadness. Angels may be a better theme.
Christmas is for remembering old friends, but do not assume that they will remember you if you do not append a surname. I have puzzled over unknown signatures — "Love, Sheila", "Greetings from New Zealand, Jim" — and have never discovered the provenance of such greetings. If you have not seen someone for a long time, add a bit of news to your greeting. It is frustrating to get a bare card from far away with nothing beyond the signature.
But unless you know the people very well, do not enclose a "family round robin", which transmits all the family news of the year. These usually seem like boasting. "Tim graduated with honours — as we expected! — Susie had twins, and Mom and Pop celebrated their Silver Wedding in style!" The receiver may feel excluded, and depressed if they have had a bad year.
Do not send rude cards even to people who have no sense of humour. These simply reveal the sender as a person with poor taste and retarded judgement.
It is the tradition not to send greetings cards to those who have suffered a bereavement, but a Christmas letter is generally welcomed.
If you are behind with your Christmas cards, you can invoke the French tradition of sending cards, with letters attached, up to the Epiphany. In fact, you can actually send "Seasons' Greetings" in France up to the end of January.
Do not be hurt if you do not receive cards from all those to whom you have sent greetings. This happens to everyone, often by virtue of oversight, scattiness, illness, and the fact that the dog chewed up the address book.
Above all, do not be inhibited by the psychologists. If you want to send a picture of a robin in a snowscene, send it, and let the addressee be grateful to have been remembered at all.