Twelfth Night in Spitalfields
Today is the day for clearing out all the Christmas clutter, sweeping up the pine needles, and tossing the dried up holly and mistletoe onto the fire and watching it crackle. Once upon a time, I used to throw all my cards in the bin, but somewhere over the years I had a change of heart on Twelfth Night and now I keep the ones I love best and put them up again next Christmas. Thus began a process that has continued ever since and my affection for some of these special cards that get put up on the chimneypiece year after year has grown and grown.
People do not send cards as much as they used to, in fact my best festive missive this year was a beautiful animated email from Rob Ryan of moving papercuts, which you can see here. Oftentimes, friends apologise to me for not having “got round to sending cards this year”, and I can cheerfully say “That’s fine! I have a half-dozen of yours that I put up every year.” For some friends, I have a complete archive of their cards going back years and years. Above you can see a small selection of my favourites. On the right is a card of Peter Blake’s Toy Shop Window in the Tate Gallery which he sent me himself in 1990. On the left is a handmade card from Lindsay Porteous, the Scottish Jaws Harp Champion. In the centre is a more recent hand painted portrait of Mr Pussy. I will not burden you with the sentimental story of every card.
Visitors sometimes gasp at the impressive array of my cards. “Goodness you are popular!” they exclaim and I have to disenchant them by explaining that most are old ones. I like it when friends recognise cards they had forgotten sending me, years ago. Inevitably, as time goes by, some of the cards in my collection are now from people who have died and I place these prominently as poignant reminders of those who have been important to me in my life – to be fondly remembered at Christmas.
Once I left home to go to college, my parents began sending me cards that would arrive the week before I returned for Christmas. As the years went by, their choices of card became more banal and routine as they picked up whatever was to hand at the Post Office near to the house in Devon where I grew up. Eventually, they stopped sending them at all, instead they would hastily scribble them out on Christmas Day and hand them to me with an apologetic smile. It gave me a sinking feeling. I put them all in a drawer, and I have around a dozen of these, that you can see below, some still with their envelopes. A couple are duplicates, where they bought boxes of cards and made them last several years, presumably unaware that they were giving me the same card every Christmas. At the time, these duplicates filled me with disappointment but now there is something especially touching about them, manifestations of their unchanging love for me.
Spanning the years between me leaving home and when my parents died, they reveal the passage of time in their declining handwriting – these cards are now the most treasured. All have almost the same message “Love Mummy and Daddy x”, though later as I grew into adulthood and my parents felt the imperative to modernity, the text was streamlined to “Love Mum and Dad x”. Significantly, they are almost always in my mother’s handwriting. Any form of writing was a chore to my father and I can hear him now, sighing and saying “Oh no, you do it!” to my mother. There are also a couple of revealing individual ones from each of them. I have a lonely girl selling mistletoe from a sentimental nineteenth century painting with “Love from Mummy x” inside the card and a painting of pheasants in bold masculine colours with the elliptical “From Dad” inside. I am grateful now for this rare example of his vigorous old school handwriting.
As my collection of cards has grown, it has become necessary on Twelfth Night to decide which to keep for next year. That is what I am doing today.