The gifts are unwrapped, the leftovers are in the fridge covered in foil, and Christmas songs have lost their lustre. That means only one thing in our house: the race to complete thank you cards is on.
On my husband’s side of the family, we draw names and everyone buys one “big” present for someone else. This is good, since there are 5 siblings along with their partners and children. That also in theory reduces the number of thank you cards to be written. In practice, granny can’t resist giving the grandchildren something, Auntie R. and the kids always like to exchange a little something. And on my side of the family it’s a gift-giving free for all, which means cards galore.
Writing thank you cards is a good practice for children, helping focus their little minds on the giver as much as the gift. While my family aren’t big thank you card-writers, occasions like anniversaries, weddings, new babies and the like merit them. In my husband’s family, it’s considered a basic tenet of good breeding and not to be overlooked at any time. There’s so much emphasis on them, I always feel the clock ticking. The card mustn’t arrive too late – almost as bad as not arriving at all.
But then a part of me thinks, if the card is just a pro forma gesture, is it really sharing a heartfelt thank you at all? If you haven’t had time to wear, use or appreciate the gift before sitting down with pen and card, are you simply ticking a self-serving box that merely reflects on the writer’s demonstrating good manners?
Then again, what’s wrong with demonstrating good manners, the way we do everyday when we say ‘please’ and ‘how are you’?
All this back-and-forth inner dialogue has meant thank you notes in our house tend to either be written and sent before the wrapping paper hits the floor, or they languish without stamp or address for weeks on end.
My copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette (yes, I do have one) has advice for parents. Start children writing notes from age 6, with the parent drafting a simple message the child can copy.
Weirdly, it gives this example: “Dear Aunt Nancy, Thank you for the magic set. It’s the best present ever. Love, Oliver”, which seems to me an over-the-top description of a magic set from dear old Aunt Nancy who probably doesn’t know that Oliver has totally grown out of that whole magic thing and now loves XBox games.
Amy Vanderbilt also says this when you don’t receive a thank-you letter:
If after a month or so you have not received a thank-you letter for a present, write the person to whom you sent the present and ask if it was received. After all, if it was lost in the mail, or the store neglected to send it, you need to know…
There’s no reason to be the least apologetic about writing to ask if a present you sent someone was received. If it was received but the recipient happened to misaddress his thank-you letter to you, at least you’ll have found out the two important factors: the present arrived and the recipient had the good manners to acknowledge it. On the other hand, if the present was received and the recipient couldn’t be bothered to let you know — the thought, time, and money you expended apparently meaning little — you’d be smart to drop that person from your gift-giving list.
There’s no such thing as a busy or disorganised recipient in Amy’s world. There goes my Amazon gift certificate from her next year.
I’ve finally come to terms — somewhat — with the thank you card way of life. I bought boxes to organise my jumble of cards (for birthdays, anniversaries, thank-yous, and nonspecific events). I put them into categories, labelled them with classic Dymo tape, accumulated a stash stamps for UK and international cards and then stretched way around to pat myself on the back.
That means this year the children have picked out thank-you cards, written all of them (by the 28th!) and they are now stamped and ready to go by the front door. On my husband’s side we have ones for sisters, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws and more. What isn’t there are cards from me to my immediate family.
A few years back I decided to really go for it and papered my family with thank you cards for every gift I received, including a gorgeous green wool duffel coat I’d admired from my sister. A few days later I got a call from her.
“What are you doing? You sent me a thank you card? We are sisters!” she said in an outraged tone. “Save that for the cousins. If you start sending them to me, I have to send them to you and it all gets out of control. We are family and we don’t need thank you cards to remind us of that.”
Which leads to another lesson of thank you cards: Sometimes it’s really the thought that counts.