For a politician, there can be no moment more fraught than this. Not Question Period, not a turn under the burning lights of Power & Politics, not lunch with the Auditor-General. For this is the time of year, marked with a "peace and goodwill" asterisk in most people's calendars, when the fur and ridicule begin to fly.
It's Christmas-card time for the political elite. I take that back: It's non-denominational, recycled, joyeuses fêtes time, or, if you happen to live in America, it's the holiday called "The White House has stolen Christ from Christmas, and they'll never put him back."
You don't have to be Alan Turing to decipher the codes that politicians send every year in the carefully chosen photos for their holiday cards: I am a sun-drenched family man, says Justin Trudeau, equally adept with a paddle and a diaper. Watch me straddle the worlds of public policy and playground swings, while striving for a better future. Wait, I've put the message here at the bottom of my card for those of you who failed to get it: "Let's celebrate our faith in a better world."
Elizabeth May's card is a cute shot of her daughter and their dog in front of a Christmas tree. (An ethically sourced tree, I have no doubt.) And more than one voter might be tempted toward Thomas Mulcair simply based on the fact that he managed to gather his family in one room, at Christmas, and no one is crying.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's card could not say "non-frivolous servant of the hard-working taxpayer" more clearly if he'd written it in blue Sharpie (bought in bulk, on sale, at Giant Tiger). The Harper family appear not even to have used the services of a festive photographer, and instead are featured, applauding, in distinctly summer clothing, above an awkwardly Photoshopped poinsettia. It's almost rambunctiously anti-stylish.
It is perhaps a postmodern wink at the Harpers' holiday greeting from last year, when the family dared to show a bit of personality and got lambasted for it. That card featured Laureen Harper holding the family chinchilla, Charlie, a charming bit of eccentricity that landed the card a spot on the website awkwardfamilyphotos.com.
A politician really cannot win at this time of year; a holiday card is just a land mine with a Hallmark stamp on the back. Drape your kids in coyote fur, as Mr. Trudeau did in 2011, and the animal-rights people start howling. Stare out with a mad-eyed rictus grin, while your wife clutches as if you might bolt at any minute, and the entire Twitterverse collapses in mirth. (Such was Tony Blair's fate this year.) Or repurpose a newspaper cartoon of you driving over your political rivals, as the far-right British politician Nigel Farage did, and you might find yourself with a copyright battle on your hands.
Of course, no family comes in for more festive abuse than the Obamas. If it's not the scandalous Chairman Mao ornament on their tree, it's the fact that they dare send out elegant cards that feature Bo and Sonny the White House dogs, and not Jesus, the Christmas martyr. It is Mr. Obama's bad luck that he follows George W. Bush, the first president to include passages from scripture in his cards, and also that he happens to be leading a deeply polarized citizenry, many of whom continue to believe he was not born in America, so what does he know about Christmas anyway? As Sarah Palin, who like the Elf on a Shelf is a tradition that refuses to die, complained about the Obamas, they don't understand real American Christmas values like "family, faith and freedom." (She forgot the fourth pillar of the season, "shopping at Walmart.")
There may come a time when our leaders decide it isn't worth the hassle and stop sending cards altogether, or replace them with those annoying e-cards that are deleted the moment they land in your inbox. Until then, politicians can at least take heart that no holiday greeting, no matter how boring, weird or contentious, will ever be as bad as Neville Chamberlain's. In 1938, the British prime minister's Christmas card – "Christmas" was still a word you could use on official stationery in those days – featured a photograph of the plane that took him to Munich to meet Adolf Hitler. It must have seemed like a jolly good idea at the time.