It's that time of year again. The season when I approach the mailbox with a pervading sense of trepidation and guilt. Am I being hounded by collection agencies? In trouble with the law? Discouraged by the river of junk mail that flows through the slot, despite the sign on my door? Nope.
It's the Christmas cards.
I should apologize in advance to anyone who sent me a card this year. This column is going to offend you. I understand that I'll likely be stricken from your list in future. The thing is, I'm okay with that. You might have noticed that I didn't ask for your "season's greetings" in the first place. I'm sorry we haven't been in touch, but an e-mail in January would have been sufficient.
It's not that I have a problem with people being nice to each other. I've got nothing against community integration or social glue or whatever touchy-feely term that doubles these days as "Christmas spirit." What I object to is good people making bad people feel worse.
I don't generally think of myself as a bad person. I pay taxes. I give to charity. I floss. And unless the yogurt container has been at the back of the fridge for months and I'm in a rush and just can't be bothered, I recycle.
But I don't and probably never will - and this is the first time I have been able to admit this - send Christmas cards.
I understand that the vast majority of people don't send Christmas cards and never give it a second thought. I'm not just talking about Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Kabbalists. I mean people of vaguely secular Christian heritage like me. November rolls around but they don't start feeling twitchy and anxious because the stationery drawer is empty and they don't have Aunt Helen's address in Sanibel. They just potter on with their lives - not reading the paper, not listening to public radio, not turning down the heat as low as they possibly can without contracting hypothermia - blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are decadent, disorganized people with horrible taste.
You see, I am a WASP. And if there's one thing we WASPs do (apart from drink a lot), it's send Christmas cards. Christmas cards are even more important than thank you notes, which I'm also rather dismal at. In my culture, Christmas cards are not just a cheery piece of snail mail, but a serious cultural marker. They are the gold standard of WASPdom, separating the wheat from the chaff, the authentic from the poseurs, the meticulously polite, emotionally repressed squares from those of us who, perversely, just aspire to be.
But I am sick of pretending to be something I'm not. And I suspect that there are more lapsed WASPs like me out there - people who spend the month of December feeling unworthy of human contact because they simply can't be bothered to order engraved notepaper. People who are sickened with inadequacy at the sight of those little personalized return address stickers featuring pine trees and snowmen. (Where do you get them? Who has the time?) The statistics are inconclusive, but I'm beginning to suspect that Christmas cards might have something to do with why the suicide rate shoots up this time of year. In the interest of public health and safety, therefore, I am calling for a ban.
1) Corporate culture has drained the custom of any meaning.
Last Tuesday, I received a card from the man who steam cleans my carpets. The following day I got one from my local pizza shop. When I worked in an office, I recall spending half of December opening up cards offering culturally neutral "best wishes in the holiday season" from PR agencies, publishers and TV and film production houses. Were these companies actually my friends? Did they care about the quality of my new year? Of course not. They wanted to retain me as a business contact. That's fine, but let's face it: A brimming rolodex will not invite you over for an egg nog on Christmas Eve.
2) Social networking has taken their place.
In the era of Facebook and Twitter, I no longer need an annual update from my far-flung friends to find out how much the babies have grown or that Glenn has decided to retire early and take Heather and the kids sailing for a year in the Maldives. Trust me, I'm already up to speed on how perfect your life is. No need to wait for Christmas to remind me. In the age of social networking, you're already doing it several times a day.
3) It's cruel to treat children like holiday-themed dress-up dolls.
I know you swore you'd never become one of those people, but you have. And no, your children don't look different than anyone else's in Santa suits and reindeer antlers. They look like cranky blobs in stupid outfits. It's neither cute nor funny. It's boring and unoriginal. What's more, they'll resent you for it when they're older.
4) It's bad for the environment.
This is sort of self-evident. But while we're on the topic, I wonder if Al and Tipper Gore send Christmas cards? The issue puts an ecologically minded WASP in a terrible double bind. On the one hand, it's only polite and e-mail simply won't do. On the other, the polar ice cap is melting and our grandchildren are going to have to fuel their cars with vegetable oil and riot in the streets for clean drinking water.
Here's a guess: I bet they send Christmas cards.