Long before it was popular, my mother started her Christmas prep in the last week of November. True, the tree and decorations wouldn't be mounted until muckers' Christmas (December 8) had passed and The Late Late Toy Show fired the starting pistol on my own descent into a consumerist fever dream.
But with black November in its death throes, my house would be enveloped in a perfumed pong of whiskey-stewed fruit, allspice and Guinness as the Christmas cake took up squatters' rights in our oven. Resisting the temptation to peek, poke or peck at the delicacy, she'd pour herself a snifter of the leftover booze and park herself at the kitchen table, getting stuck into the annual trip down memory lane that was her Christmas card list.
"It reminds me of being a little girl when all these cards would roll in from places I couldn't even imagine," she'd tell me, as I licked the batter off the wooden spoon, one of the rare times when the thing being battered by it wasn't me. "I was fascinated by the snowy landscapes, the pictures of children on toboggans, and particularly the Christmas trees, which weren't part of our Christmases on the Aran Islands (instead they had a holly branch in a pot of sand). I'd spend hours reading the messages from family who had moved to places like New York, Boston, Korea: people who I'd never met, but whose importance to the family won them pride of place on the mantelpiece."
As life moved on, and different pressures descended, I'd look at her diligently putting pen to paper each November and ask her why she put herself through so much bother. "You just never know what it might mean to someone getting that card through the door," she'd say. "People go on about the price of a stamp. But if it makes someone feel connected to home when they might be feeling lost, then it's worth the price of a night in the pub."
Much like video killed the radio star, millennials and their preferred means of communication, social media, are eradicating the Christmas card as we know it, abandoning the centuries-old tradition in favour of one that matches the ephemera of a snowflake. But before you clog up the multiple accounts of friends and family with cut-and-paste WhatsApp messages, trite Facebook statuses and soulless e-cards, bear in mind that 68pc of Irish people surveyed in an An Post poll last year said that they would prefer to receive a handwritten Christmas card from a loved one over a digital version.
"It's a good time of year to reconnect with friends and family who you haven't had a chance to check in with during the past 12 months," says Fiona O'Donnell of The Mindfulness Centre. "To let them know you are still thinking of them and that they are important enough to you for you to take the time out during a busy time to wish them well."
Texting and messages sent through social media generally means very little effort for the sender and the sentiment often has a matching effect on the receiver. Fiona says we should take what can seem like a chore as a chance to reflect on what the people in our lives mean to us and reap the emotional benefits that such mindful action can have. "Before you start writing the card, bring to mind the image of this person, their positive qualities, what they mean to you, the good times you have shared. As you write the card, you are connected to those memories and those positive feelings. It fires up the neurons in the brain and this positive awareness will impact your mood."
She recommends turning off your phone, pouring yourself a nice glass of wine or treating yourself to some coffee or cake in a café, to really engage in the process by giving it your full attention. Throw on some Christmas carols; make yourself a playlist of songs that remind you of a time and place. Pull out the photo album. "If you don't have time to dedicate a whole evening to it, have a pile of cards by your bedside table, and disengage at the end of every evening for 30 minutes, working through a few cards each night until you get through them all."
Orla Brosnan of The Etiquette Institute recommends that you do a list, ideally on a Google spreadsheet that you can keep updating, deleting and adding to as the years go by. "Some people recommend having a strike-off system for people who don't return cards. But if you approach it more positively, you can enjoy the fact that you are sending a nice greeting to someone, sending out positivity, which should be enough for anyone."
Conversely, if you're lucky enough to have the cards roll into your letterbox, take the time to appreciate the sentiment. "Before you even open the card, take a moment to acknowledge that someone has taken the time to send you a card," says Fiona. "Of all the people they know, you have warranted this special attention. Stay with that thought for five seconds to absorb its full impact and then really read and engage with what's written in the card. When you're done, pop it on the mantelpiece, the tree, or wherever you display your cards. Whenever you see it throughout the holiday season, try and reconnect with that feeling."
When sending cards, be conscious of the particulars. "If someone isn't religious, or of a faith that doesn't celebrate Christmas, there's no need to leave them out," says Orla. "Just make sure you send them a more secular card, with a picture of a snowman on it, or a robin. Or find out what dates are important in their religion and send them a card to mark that. It will show that you have taken the time to notice what's important to them."
While filled with cheap sentiment, Christmas cards are also a good way of reaching out to those you have fallen out with over the years. "Life is too short," says Orla. "Send a card if you are big enough. Christmas is a good time to reconcile with people you have had a run-in with. The act of sending a card can be a conciliatory act, an olive branch to reopen communication. But try and send it out as soon as you can so they have a chance to ponder on it and get over their own stubbornness, and return the favour. Leaving it too late can be read as an act of aggression, a deliberate attempt to show them up and further fuel the fire."
Just be careful to address the card in a way that it ensures it makes its way to the intended person. I once sent a card with an in-joke to a friend whose grandmother shared her name… and her address, causing chaos in her household when it arrived on Christmas Eve.
Another time, I 'outed' a school friend, who wasn't, in fact, gay, when their mother opened their mail and misunderstood the message, leading to a beautiful speech at the Christmas table about their love for their gay son... if only it were true!
Comedian Jarlath Regan's family receives a Christmas card each year from a person or persons with illegible handwriting. "To this day, we have no idea who it's from," he laughs. He has been selling Christmas cards from his website, jigser.com, for almost a decade. "We've all had that experience, going into a card shop and looking at all these overly sentimental, twee cards and wondering, 'Who are these cards for?' So I used to get a real kick sending offbeat cards to people I knew would get the joke."
That's at the heart of his business model. "Part of the compliment is that someone is sending you this as they know you have a sense of humour: you will get the joke."
There are so many seasonal archetypes and clichés to rip into. "I've one card which reads: 'Midnight Mass. Helping You Get It Out Of The Way Since 1922.' Another rags on how sexist some Christmas traditions are ('Mistletoe. Creeps Love It')."
Meanwhile, specifically Irish Christmas tropes, like the Toy Show and a dip in the 40ft, also get it in the neck. "I try to capture that 'side of the mouth' comment only an Irish person can make at the back of a room when something sombre is going on. As someone who no longer lives in Ireland, I know what it's like to get that card in the post that's so distinctly Irish; it's a really special moment."
In 2013, Anita Elliot co-founded Clover Rua, a Dublin- based design company that fills a gap in the market for design that celebrates Irish heritage. Their Christmas cards draw on the architecture of the city to tug on the heartstrings of those who get them, more often than not people who moved away during the recession.
"We have a card with Santa and his reindeer flying between the Poolbeg Towers; of 'Nollaig Shona' strewn between the Liffey bridges; a Christmas tree made up of notable landmarks like The Spire, Liberty Hall and Christ Church, and another one made up of pints of Guinness. People want to send a bit of Ireland to their friends that speak of the Ireland that exists now, not something that's all shamrocks and leprechauns." She lived in Australia for several years herself. "Getting anything with a stamp on it was amazing… but to get a card made me feel really special, that I was thought of. There is nothing nicer when you are away from home at Christmas than to get that post."
For designer and illustrator Rachel Corcoran, the aim is to create a card that could almost be a decoration in itself. "I've heard back from lots of customers that their card ended up being framed by the person they sent it to. It's a piece of art that just happens to have a nice sentiment." Her own house was covered in Christmas cards growing up. "My mam would display them on hangers on the back of the door, with special ones going on the mantelpiece. They were a form of decoration." There have been fewer cards in the last few years. "Families move away and certain people are not around anymore - they pass on and the cards stop coming."
For my mother, too, there was sadness intermingled with the joy. "Whenever you take out the old cards to decorate the house, there'd always be ones from people who'd passed on in the previous 12 months. But it was also a good way to give thanks for your health and remember the time you had together."
Ireland - December 20
Northern Ireland - December 19
Great Britain - December 18
Europe - December 18
USA - December 10