I didnt' intend to be so CPA-ish about writing Christmas cards last year. Nor did I set out to dither away the better part of last January mailing my children's smiling faces far and wide long after Twelfth Night. But the old inventory accounting method - first in, first out - evolved one card at a time. As for the lag into January and beyond - that came of its own accord.
I used to be on top of these things, I really was. But with two busy boys, a husband whose schedule spins our heads, and the annoying shrinkage of time and space that pervades the days between Thanksgiving and New Year's, something had to give. So, rather than abandon holiday greetings entirely - well, here's what happened.
First came a card from my best friend from first grade. Jayne is the sort of person who, bless her heart, will not only remember my birthday forever, but can be counted on to send me a card that will arrive on my actual birth date. Every year, on the appointed day, Jayne's card and my mom's slip through the mail slot, as sure as the sun shines. But last year, her note had sad news of a "what's done is done" variety, and it deserved a heartfelt, thoughtful response.
I carried her card around for months, assuring myself that I would make up for my tardiness by being a correspondent worthy of Jane Austen. But instead, her card to me languished in my bag, and the one I'd intended to send to her was long lost. Thus, when December rolled around and I found myself buying boxes of cards with holly berries and mistletoe around the borders, I knew my cards would not go out in alphabetical order this year. First Jayne, then everyone else.
Next came an extraordinary bit of mail. A friend from my undergraduate days wrote me an honest-to-goodness letter - no birthday greetings, no holiday preprinted update, just a wonderful epistle, catching me up with the milestones of her recent history, wanting to know what the strands of my life had woven themselves into. I was the happy beneficiary of her New Year's resolution: to sit down each Sunday and write a letter to a long-lost friend.
If that were not delight enough, there was more. Along with her news came the enclosure of a letter I'd sent to her two decades ago, written in my tidy college handwriting, back when I wrote letters to avoid studying for finals. My letter to her was full of observations about a mutual acquaintance - a gentleman who, as it turned out, became the man I would marry.
"I found this letter when I was helping my parents clean out their house," she wrote to me. "It should be part of your family lore. Put it in John's stocking this Christmas."
Needless to say, this friend received Christmas Card No. 2.
Just after Thanksgiving had come what I'd thought at first was an abominably early Christmas card. Once open and read, however, I understood the early postmark.
It was both a holiday greeting and a preemptive strike, to let me know about an unexpected move from Connecticut to California. With the unstated hope that this message would catch me before I started addressing my own holiday envelopes, I decided this hopeful effort was worthy of Christmas card No. 3.
You can see where this was going. Not only did I find myself feeling happily obliged to write my cards to these deserving recipients first, but I also found myself writing the cards that took the longest at the beginning, not putting them off for last. Which meant low productivity, holiday-greetings- management-wise.
In years past, this pace might have done me in. I can't explain why it didn't this time. Whatever the reason, I found myself taking perverse pleasure in my failure to "get the cards done."
Perhaps by just a shift in perspective, my Christmas cards stopped being a job to be checked off my "to do" list and transformed into a project to be savored. All it took was the removal of the December deadline.
Once that due date was gone, I discovered the odd joys that come from stretching out one's season's greetings. If by "season," we're talking "winter," there sure is a lot more of it after Dec. 25 than there is before it. And the part that stretches out across January and February - "Always winter but never Christmas," as C.S. Lewis described the bleak cold of Narnia - surely could use more friendly greetings than those days between the pumpkins and the mistletoe.
Who wouldn't like to find a card from a friend in the mail, when all you expect to find is bills, credit-card applications, and post-holiday white sale fliers? There's a lot a person can do to liven up Groundhog Day and any number of presidents' birthdays.
Season's greetings can certainly stretch to include Valentine's Day. Who knew how much a little red heart sticker could do to turn a Christmas card into a Cupid card?
This year, my time lag has been intentional. I packed both the cards I'd received and the ones I intend to send into a box, and lugged them with me to our holiday vacation spot.
I began writing my replies on Christmas afternoon, just after I finished watching the last of the tattered wrapping paper crinkle in the fireplace, flickering little wisps of blue and green flames up the chimney. It was a lovely place to begin.
Jayne's birthday is in June. I expect I'll be done with my Christmas cards by then.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society