Tidings of comfort and joy

My wife and I are both atheists so it might seem odd that each year we send Christmas cards or perhaps more precisely, seasonal greetings cards. But it is an important part of our family life, as it was for my own parents, also atheists, although we send out only a fraction of the 400 or so that they would have sent.

This is a familiar ritual repeated in millions of households across the land. For us, the process starts in late November/early December when the year’s cards are selected and our address printed inside. A list of recipients is drawn up, the final date for posting is checked, cards are written, envelopes stamped and addressed. Finally, well almost, there is the journey to the post box for posting or around the local streets for home delivery. Then, of course there will be the inevitable catch-up dispatch. Despite the most careful planning there are still those who we have overlooked, leaving us to rush around to send a card hoping it arrives on time.

Extending beyond the traditional Christmas greetings, we see the cards as celebrating the day when spring is in sight, when daylight hours begin to lengthen. The practice has such universal appeal that, for us anyway, attaching a religious theme no longer seems appropriate. On our list are Atheists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and undeclareds, and they too will be sending cards in the same spirit.

And, the pleasure is not just in the sending of cards but in receiving them, in absorbing the illustrations on the front and the messages inside. On the basis of those we have received so far, here is my report on this year’s harvest.

Overall pictorial quality and theme. This year the pictures have been better than ever. There have been many fewer cards than usual with religious themes. We even got skating penguins from a close friend – a devout catholic. There have been lots of Father Christmases, Christmas trees, snowballs and reindeer, some family photos and a diverse collection of animals – cats, rabbits, squirrels, hares – and robins and owls in particular. In general most senders are consistent in their tastes, so from year to year their cards are of a similar style. There was just one very bleak picture this year, ironically it was sent by a couple who are, in real life, very amusing.

Colour. The predominant colour for 2013 has been blue, followed closely by reds and pinks.

Format. In the last few years we have received the occasional email round-robin in place of a paper card. So far this year we have received no such alternative. What a pleasant relief.

Size. Very manageable – none enormous, none tiny. All have been easily accommodated on our mantelpiece or bookshelves

Message. Some people have added little more than a signature, lots have expressed a wish to meet up in the year (although while it would be nice, in my experience often such intentions don’t materialise) and some were more informative, full of news and thoughts and warmth. None this year were illegible and none from people we did not recognise.

Oversights. We have received four cards from people we left off our initial list. The oversights have been rectified but having to do so is, as always, rather embarrassing.

Tenacity. Yet again we received one from Stan. An old neighbour who has sent us a card each year since around 1991 and we have not reciprocated since 1993.

Overall conclusion. Despite my frequent grousing, sending and receiving cards means a great deal to us both. No matter the messages or the content, keeping in touch gives us enormous pleasure. For those we are close to and who we see often, exchanging cards is a must, an affirmation of friendship. For those further afield, this may be the only tangible evidence we have that they still exist. The exchange of cards each year is a wonderful tradition. Long may it last!

And, by the way, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.


Illustration: St James and St Andrew with Angels. Carlo da Camerino (c 1400)

5 thoughts on “Tidings of comfort and joy

  1. Hi Joe

    Your positive piece has, unusually, prompted me to write with a counter view. We have received lots of cards, which makes me excited as I run to the letter box full of anticipation. But when I open them, almost always I am deflated – mainly mediocre designs with little if any meaningful messages inside apart from often indecipherable names. After having received approximately half of our expected cards, I suddenly realised people receiving ours might be similarly deflated by the lack of any meaningful content from us. SO having been dismissive of (lengthy) mass produced printed inserts over the years…..! I quickly wrote a short note (250 words, not one of those 800 word two siders) and inserted it into our second batch of dispatches. At least recipients could either look down on me, or maybe even be interested after all these years of knowing little about our evolving family. Either way it might prompt a reaction rather than boredom. So far I have had 6 individualised responses saying they liked the insert. BUT what do people want to hear about. Does anyone have any tips for definite “musts” and “must nots” for inclusion in Christmas round robins? Ian

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  2. Dear Joe,

    As you know, the tradition of Christmas (long before we called it that) dates back well before the Christian era to the pagan celebrations marking the winter solstice and to Roman saturnalia (etc). With these short days, dark cold nights, and incessant wind and rain, we all need cheering up at this time of year, don’t we?

    So, as I heard the man on the radio say this morning, Christmas is for everyone, not just Christians. However, the sending and receiving of a few cards is a fairly paltry effort on your part, if you don’t mind me saying. I would go the whole hog, put a wreath on your door, put up a Christmas tree with fairy lights and invite the neighbours in for drinks!! Too late now, but next year, go even further and go to the carol service at your local church and sing the well known carols with as much gusto as you can manage! It can be a truly uplifting experience. As my vicar here is fond of reminding me, being a non-believer is no barrier to being a member of the Church of England, and it never has been.

    Here’s another thought. Don’t you feel just a little sorry for our cousins in the Southern Hemisphere, being forced to celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer? Turkey and all the usual trimmings, in 40 degree heat under a sunshade on Bondi Beach, followed by Christmas pudding and custard. I would slightly hesitate to rename the festival “Winterval”, as did one of those socialist (and no doubt republican and atheist) councils in the West Midlands a few year back, but there would be benefits – it would allow Australians and New Zealanders to hold their own Winterval and on a more appropriate date, 25th June. Those of us with relatives out there could enjoy two Christmases a year. What do you think?

    With all best wishes for 2014,

    J E Humprys.

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  3. Although I don’t subscribe to atheist ideas I do share Joe’s view of certain of the curious practices and events that are now associated with Christmas. For me it is (unlike Easter, for example) hardly a religious festival at all. As Jack Humphrys has pointed out, the present feast of December 25th is descended much more from pagan tradition than from Church teaching. Here in Northern Europe (I live in Oslo) we don’t wish each other “Merry Christmas” – we say “Good Yule!” (God Jul) – dating from the old Nordic Yule Feast that was held in the middle of the Winter, somewhere between mid-December and January 10th and looked forward to the coming of Spring. (Christ wasn’t in any case born on December 25th – it probably happened in the Spring or Summer around 6 B.C.)
    Christmas Cards are not only in many cases tasteless – they are a commercial racket. Twenty years ago we stopped sending them, replacing them with our own eight-page Chrstmas newspaper “Helsing Tidende” a mixture of news and satire, which is wildly popular. (This year we are switching the publication date from December to January to celebrate the New Year.) And guess what? Inclusive production in colour offset and mailing it is far cheaper than sending Chirstmas cards .Highly recommended

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    1. Dear Graham, I had worried about my not having received my copy of Helsing Tidende this year. Now I can relax, hoping for one in January. But I should point out that it is not the normal dull email Christmas circular rather it is an amusing celebration which those outside your family can enjoy. God Jul, Joe

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