For the past 15 years at least, maybe even 20, I’ve been hand-making the Christmas cards that Joel and I send out. On the whole, I really love doing it, though it’s a project with many parts. I often make 60 or more cards, so the first criteria has to be simply whether or not it’s feasible without being a factory. Joel used to help me with the simplest bits, such as the preparation of folding the card (usually A5 220gm Daler Rowney cartridge pads) and sharpening the crease with the swish of a ruler. Or colouring within lines or circles with felt-tips (Staedtler Polycolor, Edding or even sometimes just Caran d’Ache Super-Fibre). Sometimes he even dotted the i’s of our “made in Chiswick” or, latterly, “made in Nice” credit on the back of the cards using a Pilot gold or silver metallic marker.
But over the years he became more and more unnerved by what he perceived as my disapproving glances, and the increasing height of the reject pile. What was, early on in my card-making career, a companionable seasonal tradition became a lone pursuit. I didn’t really mind. It just meant that I had to start earlier in the year.
Finding inspiration is a constant. I don’t look for it; it’s just there. I usually have a notebook with me. (Those little grey lined “Moleskine” ones are my favourite because they’re tough and survive months rattling around in a knapsack. Some years I’m partial to the tiny squares of “Rhodia” notebooks, but they’re too ephemeral and I just get frustrated.) I don’t always use them to make the notes; this year in my diary (Filofax pocket-size, week-on-one-page), the entry for Monday November 21 is “Don’t forget NY Public Library Digital Collection for Xmas card ideas.” But in the scruffy Moleskine notebook, in amongst notes reminding me of the times of the Nice Centre du Patrimoine’s walking tours, the model number of a light bulb that needs replacing, and the colour of 7 Villermont’s awning, are scribbles that might be sketches of fabric designs, friezes on buildings I’ve noticed while cycling past, or just a really bad imitation of a pretty card I’ve seen in a shop. All things that might be easy to do in parts for Christmas cards.
I don’t have much talent as an artist, nor skill as a draughtsperson, nor patience, and all those factors need to be considered. Once the card is bought, removed from its pad, folded and creased (perhaps 90 minutes, depending on whether I do it while listening to BBC Radio 4 – faster ; or watching TV – slower), the real work begins. Sometimes the work begins well in advance of the card: one year I did my own linocut of a reindeer, ink-stamped it onto the card, and then coloured in baubles hanging from the antlers (30 hours at least). I bought the linocut tools at a shop in Tokyo called Tokyu Hands, pretty much the best shop in the world for people like me whose favourite pastime is “looking at stuff”. Another year I embossed a Christmas tree onto the card and coloured in the baubles with Eddings and Pilot gold marker. I actually developed blisters on my left index finger from embossing about 30 circles on each card: 30 x 60 = 1,800 (40 hours, minimum). I bought the embossing kit at Hobbycraft in Greenford, a western suburb of London. Despite Hobbycraft being the most physically soulless craft superstore in the universe, my heart used to beat faster each time I turned into a new aisle. The best thing I ever bought there was pewter craft paper, which I used to pinprick a shade for a tea light holder, which I sent as a card with instructions on how to fold, and included the tea light itself (50 hours, plus band-aids). Sometimes I send myself a test card, to see if the construction will hold up to the postal system – this was the beginning of that practice.
The simplest ideas can turn out to be the most time-consuming. One card had a gold three-piece puzzle on the front, with one obviously missing piece. Inside the card I glued the missing piece, always “H”-shaped, as the start of “Happy Christmas”. The problem there was that before I could spray-paint the puzzles in gold to use on the card, I had to fit them together on the kitchen table, the desk and the living room floor. I bought a batch of puzzles from charity shops, and while it started out well (Joel helped doing the puzzles), it ended with spray-painted gold patches all over the patio and glue all over the kitchen table. (100 hours, at least.) That card was perhaps my most un-favourite of all.
I can’t honestly remember all the cards I’ve made. When you have to make 60+, each one is valuable, so I don’t tend to keep any myself and I forget them from year to year. Sometimes, however, I find an inky, smudged, botched test or template when I’m rooting in my Toybox for a pen or some gift-tying ribbon. And with each one, I think about how I could have done it quicker, or better, or cheaper.
The best part, of course, is when there’s a whole pile of finished cards next to me, and I write them out, and copy the addresses from my address book, and think of the people who make me happy. Then I divide up the envelopes into piles for posting to different countries. It’s like being Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn… I like having the piles sit somewhere nearby for a couple of days before posting, all that crisp paper whiteness, all those softly even edges.
But this year, I didn’t do any of that. It’s been difficult in Nice anyway. The world’s single most amazingly wonderful incredible art shop (Turnham Green Arts and Crafts in Chiswick), supplier of my card paper, is far, far away now. The world’s other single most deliciously papery paper shop (Paperchase in Tottenham Court Road) is also far, far away. There is, I have to admit, a friendly pen shop in Nice (Geant in rue Gubernatis), but in Nice art shops are for Capital-A Artists, not for people who just like a crafty splurge at Christmastime. (Crafty splurges are for children, and extra-curricular at that.) And of course we went to London for 10 days! We closed the restaurant (until 3 January) because it’s a quiet time and boy, did we need a rest. Our stay was so fabulous I can only just offer a few pictures instead of a thousand words: a very frosty morning in Battersea Park, my niece and nephew, mince pies.
So, sorry. I even found the inspiration in that New York Public Library Digital Collection: a Victorian set of snowflake stencils, which I was going to simplify, copy, pencil in, template, re-copy and re-arrange in between strips of red velvet ribbon… But I think the whole process would have taken a lifetime. Right now, we don’t have a lifetime, we just have our restaurant.
In my 2017 diary, I’ve made a note to start thinking about Christmas cards in June.
Happy New Year, with happiness, energy, and plenty of time.