After more than two decades living here, my family and I have managed to come to an accommodation with most aspects of English culture in our Catalan lives. With Halloween, for example, my kids were at the right age to enjoy the festival just as Catalonia began to adopt it, meaning we could celebrate it without being the weird family down the road who dress up as Dracula or Frankenstein every year (the locals think we’re weird for other reasons).
Food is another aspect that no longer causes us as many problems as it did back in the day. I remember when I first got here, every visitor from the UK would come laden with Marmite. I abhor Marmite but I was always too scared of offending the gift giver (an English trait I’ve now overcome) to tell them I’d rather eat dog food. Even my local supermarket now sells Tetley tea bags, and my son came home recently cradling a bottle of blackcurrant cordial, just like grandma used to give him on summer trips over in Liverpool.
Yet if there’s one thing after all these years that I still haven’t got my head around, it’s Christmas cards. To be honest, even when I lived in England I was far from convinced by the whole card-giving dynamic.
As a kid, I remember that almost everyone we knew would get a Christmas card from us, and not only family and friends, but also many neighbours, some shopkeepers, tradesmen and teachers. And we would get a card back from everyone on our list, which was huge and the focus of much anxiety in case – heaven forbid – you missed someone out but – oh, the shame – you then received a card from them! It’s not surprising that there were three large greeting card shops on our local high street.
Now, move that whole operation to the other side of Europe, to a country that has little tradition of giving greeting cards, and certainly not on the scale of England, and put in charge of the Christmas card operation someone with a terrible memory who has never really seen the point and you have a recipe for disaster. And I have to admit that my handling of the Christmas card situation has always been disastrous and today is all a bit of a mess.
Although I made a valiant effort in the beginning, the difficulty in sourcing the cards, the unreliable postal service, my inability to plan far enough ahead, my habit of losing my list so I had to write it out anew every year but always forgetting someone, all meant that after a few years of royally messing up the Christmas card operation led me to the decision that this was one English tradition that I was not cut out for.
Over the years, I have oscillated between sending and not sending Christmas cards... but now I realise that is the worst thing you can do, because if you drop off someone’s list after failing to send them a card for a few years, then the last thing they want is to suddenly get a card from you out of the blue. Either you’re on the list or you’re not on the list, anything else is just chaos.
You often hear the expression “it’s the thought that counts” in connection with Christmas cards. That may be the most important thing in certain cases, and greeting cards obviously have a role to play when many friends and family live in another country, but the most important lesson I’ve learned where giving Christmas cards is concerned, is that it’s a case of all or nothing.