Mary Kenny: Auld acquaintance time
Christmas gathers families together - but cards are about maintaining friends
Christmas is supposed to be about families - and of course it is. But it should also be about friends and friendship. The nice thing about all those Christmas cards - from the impressive and tasteful to the glittery and gaudy - is that they express friendliness, and often a desire to keep friendships alive.
I like the newsy ones best - I don't even mind enclosed 'round robins', which some people mock: those newsletters with a full account of all the wonderful achievements attained during the year. What failures, what embarrassments lie behind the happy lines about violin exams passed and weddings delayed or deferred? But news is news. The Christmas card which just says "Love, Jane" is the least satisfying, because it informs you least about Jane's life, and you might not even know which Jane is involved. But even so, Jane has taken the trouble to buy a card, address it, put a stamp on it and post it.
Etiquette arbitrators are sometimes quizzed as to whether email Christmas "cards" are as acceptable as real ones, and I believe the answer is "yes". Any connection which wishes you well is pleasing. And some of these electronic cards are amusing and decorous, and even play a tune. I've had lovely e-cards, and I've sent them too. Sometimes e-card replacements are in a good cause - our family solicitors this year announced they're sending e-cards and giving the money saved to a homeless charity.
The drawback is that you can't put an electronic card on the mantelpiece. They have zero swanking value. An tUachtarán Michael D. Higgins and the sweet-natured Sabina sent me an electronic card last year, and I was delighted, but I couldn't swank about it, the way I used to be able to show off the ostentatious card I used to receive from Charlie Haughey from his splendid estate in Abbeville. Still, it's the thought that counts.
Then there's the absent Christmas greeting which signals that you may have lost touch with a friend (or have you perhaps offended them?). Contact can be lost over the years, and everybody seems to be so busy these days, perhaps contact is more easily lost. I have heard of relatively young people - striplings in their 40s- who have moved to another part of the country, or to another country, and have "lost touch" with all their previous friends.
And because life is so busy and everyone seems to be on social media so assiduously collecting ever more Facebook 'friends', I wonder if friendships can thus become more superficial? In a world where almost everyone signs "lots of love" as a way of ending a communication, and even business transactions may include the symbol of a kiss, are friendships just that little bit shallower?
Yet I wouldn't disparage social media, which has enabled me to link up with old friends and connections. A dear friend of my youth there was: then we somehow fell away because our lives took different paths. But just a couple of years ago we linked up again via electronic means, and now we're in touch weekly.
The main thing is that it doesn't altogether matter how you keep in touch, so long as the lines of communication are maintained. My late brother was a bank manager in the days when people, not algorithms, managed personal accounts: he said the bank would only be concerned about a customer if the account went dead. Withdraw or deposit, go into overdraft or go into credit - just keep the lines active. And I think the same goes for friendship.
Friendships can change and grow stale: and just as in a marriage, people develop new interests. But there's a lot to be said for maintaining the connection for old times' sake. I got an enquiry this year from a woman who said that she had grown exasperated with an old friend, whose girlhood wit had withered into middle-aged malice, and whose lively sense of gossip had become embittered resentment. How could she tactfully drop the old pal from their get-togethers? I said I thought she might put up with the old pal's grouches: a long friendship entails a debt of honour.
People can't always keep in touch with everyone. Life moves on. Work and family life can be overwhelming. But that's just one of the things that Christmas is for - to remember friendship connections, and wish peace on earth and goodwill to all. Soppy but meaningful.
Christianity originally put far more emphasis on friendship than on family. Perhaps it was taken for granted that the clan and the tribe would always hold sway. But friendship was something that had to be chosen and cherished. That made friendship more altruistic. "Greater love no man hath than he lay down his life for his friend," says the text. It's natural to defend your family, but it's heroic to sacrifice for a friend.
The saddest Christmas list is that part of an old address book where you mark those who have died. Last December, an old friend died who I hadn't seen for years: I glimpsed the notice in the paper, and felt a pang of remorse at not having taken the opportunity of sending her a Christmas card, previously.
Sometimes a family member can also be a lifelong friend. Queen Elizabeth's oldest continuous friend - her cousin Margaret Rhodes - died last month, and for the Queen, greetings from all the chancelleries in Europe would hardly make up for the presence of her childhood companion.
Ah, absent friends. A Christmas card means a friend is still present.