David Bouchier: Card Game

Dec 22, 2019

It’s too late now. Your holiday cards may as well stay in their boxes because you have already lost the card game. This is a game that is widely known but rarely mentioned – the Holiday Card Waiting Game, otherwise known as Call My Bluff.

It is a game for mature players, a friendly game of social rivalry. If you are too young and electronically sophisticated to send paper cards through the mail, this is how the competition works. Each player has his or her own list of friends and relatives who are or might be in the game. On the list they record the cards sent and received during the holiday season, noting the relevant dates. This year’s list is still incomplete, of course, and that’s the point. The object of the game is to avoid the embarrassment of an unequal exchange – receiving cards too late to respond – and at the same time embarrassing as many of your friends as possible by sending them cards at the very last minute, when they have failed to send one to you.

The rules of the game are set by the U.S. Postal Service. The international mailing deadline has already passed of course, and today is just about the last chance for local First-Class Mail. The secret of success is to play as close up to the deadline as possible. There are refinements used by serious players. For example, if you receive a cheap and nasty card early in the season, you can wait until the very last minute before sending a beautiful and expensive card in reply. But that’s sophisticated stuff. Most of us just concentrate on who gets there first.

The order in which cards arrive is always revealing. Our first card, in the mailbox on December 4, was from the accountant. It’s good to know that somebody cares. Cards from the plumber and the cat sitter quickly followed. Then, as always, came greetings from distant, aged and semi-detached relatives who like to start the season early to get it over with.

I’ve been trying to give up the Christmas card habit for years. It takes so much time, and the game is increasingly stressful as the lists get longer. I had planned to give it up this year but, when the cards started coming in, I felt guilty, wrote two or three, then ten, then thirty, just like last year. It seems to be one of those habits that is almost impossible to break.

The best thing about the holiday card game is that it brings back memories. An old address book, consulted once a year, is an archive of personal history, which your ephemeral computer address list is not. The tattered pages of the address book are full of forgotten friends, who have probably forgotten you too. Now is your chance to remind them, and remind yourself. You can reach out and touch them with a completely unexpected last-minute card. If they have any decency at all they will feel thoroughly guilty.

That’s why it is so satisfying and so much fun to keep up this archaic tradition. Electronic cards have no gaming value because they eliminate the essential condition of the game, which is the postal delay. They sneak in when you’re not looking, and, you can never be sure exactly which card arrived exactly when, so cheating with electronic cards is not allowed. If we’re going to play, we must play by the rules. Tomorrow afternoon the post office will close its doors and the last delivery trucks will return to base. Game over.

Copyright: David Bouchier