Frances Bula header image 2

I did a strange thing this Christmas — I went all out on the Christmas-card thing

December 19th, 2020 · No Comments

A column I wrote for the Globe’s Amplify newsletter

The Christmas-card ritual was a fixture in my mother’s life.

She had special books with rows and columns, so she could track the name of each person who had been sent a card, which of them had sent her one back the previous year and who perhaps needed to be struck from next year’s to-do list.

She wasn’t a huge Christmas traditionalist. She let us know every year how much she hated shopping for presents because she was bad at it. She ditched real trees when I was still in elementary school, acquiring one of the earliest plastic trees manufactured, a hideous stick-like contraption. In the years of experimental vegetarianism, she did not cook a turkey.

But the cards were sacrosanct.

In return, our homes in Regina, then North Vancouver, received cascades of mail every Christmas when I was a child, cards that became part of the decorations as they were hung along strings tacked to the walls. Sometimes we’d run out of wall.

I didn’t mean to abandon the tradition as an adult, but I was always, you know, sooooo busy with my urban Vancouver life. I had my own traditions: making my own gingerbread houses for anywhere up to 12 kids, tree-decorating parties, baking endless rounds of cookies that filled tins stacked all over the floor.

I tried many years to keep up the card tradition. I’d buy whole boxes, West Coast-themed when I could find them, as well as occasional $7-apiece craft-store cards. I’d mean to send them. But, oh dear, the time to write all those quick but meaningful notes. Finding addresses. The frigging post-code hunt. Stamps. Geo-locating mailboxes.

It’s all so different in this (use preferred cliché word here) year.

There’s so much time that I never knew I had, now that there are no coffees, lunches, dinners, rambling shopping expeditions, unrestricted gym visits, music festivals, trips to non-B.C. destinations.

I’ve undertaken a lot of unexpected activities as a result.

Done almost three-dozen jigsaw puzzles. Taken up South Asian cooking. Re-watched Grey’s Anatomy. Learned to program my car clock. Knit a few sweaters.

And then, suddenly, two weeks ago, as I kicked into the whole Christmas thing way earlier than usual, Christmas cards entered my brain’s orbit.

Oh, I thought. I’ll send off a few this year. As I started to get into a rhythm, the list expanded. I’m up to 81 names now.

Not all have gone out yet because it turns out it’s a lot of work to crank up the old Christmas-card machine.

I had to find my last extant address book, buried in the cubbyhole reserved for old daybooks. Then it turned out that many of the addresses I had were years out of date or not there at all.

Finding addresses became a major project requiring all my investigative-journalism skills, since I wanted to avoid asking people directly. I did internet searches, hunted through social-media channels for ancient dinner invitations, drove past houses to get street addresses, checked out entry panels for apartment numbers, looked on Google Maps. In extreme cases, I paid the $10 fee to search their names on the government’s land-titles site.

Then I needed to find just the right cards – not some cheesy dollar-store boxes. No, they had to be original, something that conveyed the essence of me and/or the West Coast. As well, because I have a lot of Jewish friends (a couple of stints on a kibbutz in Israel has left me a legacy of a wide network of them in the U.S.) and for the non-Christians and co-atheists, I needed a wide selection ranging from traditionally Christian to cards with nothing but embossed snowflakes or Christmas fishes (see above pic). So I’ve been discovering the city anew by checking out various shops – which, because they’re small and arty, usually have no one in them but me, so safe!

And, finally, the stamps. As with so much else in the pandemic, what should have been a relatively simple task turned out, again, to require cunning or patience. It appears many others have had the same impulse as me. So there are lineups at every post office, even in supposedly empty neighbourhoods. And the offices are selling out of stamps. Not just Christmas stamps. All stamps.

And why am I doing it? Why not just an email? Or phone? I ask myself that. Is it just that, since we’re reliving the 1950s anyway these days (all meals at home on a menu in rotation, evenings spent playing board and card games, travel restricted to camping locally), why not throw this in too?

Maybe, a little. But there’s something more.

I think of the pleasure of the person getting the card.

For once, not a bill or a flyer from the local real-estate agent or newsletter from a politician or a plea from a charity.

Instead, a direct communication in old-fashioned cursive that my friends can hold in their hands, something that represents a distinct effort to do more than send a quickie “Hey, how’s life in the pandemic?” email. But not anything too elaborate.

Just a little note with a beautiful piece of mini-art that sends the message, “I think of you still. You’re part of my life in this very strange time.”

What else we’re thinking about:

Once my Christmas-card rampage is over, I’ll be looking for more time-consuming activities to use up my many spare hours. So far, I’ve been cruising the internet looking for ever-more complicated South Asian, Thai or Korean recipes to make. An hour to toast and grind spices and then make a curry? No problem. That has led me to books like Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. But I’m looking for more, so this is what’s on my Christmas list from 2020′s crop of interesting new cookbooks: Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves (Sri Lankan) by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama or In Bibi’s Kitchen (East African) by Hawa Hassan.


Categories: Uncategorized