Strictly speaking, a Christmas card is a greeting card specifically oriented for the Christmas celebrations of 25 December.

What Does a Christmas Card Look Like?

The cover of a Christmas card usually contains a random selection of animals covered in snow, reindeer with blindingly red noses, Santa Claus and his minions, snow-men and snow-women, cathedrals in European cities with too many k's and z's in their names1, or an image from the birth of Christ. In the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas occurs in the middle of summer, many Christmas cards depict melting snow-men or Santa Claus in shorts and a t-shirt.

The centrefold of a Christmas card usually contains a generic, religious-free phrase, wishing the reader a merry festive season and a safe new year.

If you're very lucky, your card may be electrically wired to play a cheerful Christmas carol when the card is opened.

Corporate Christmas Cards

Corporate Christmas cards are a Human Relations event and have absolutely nothing to do with seasonal well-wishes. Towards the end of the year, many corporations will send Christmas cards to clients, customers and business partners in an attempt to gain cheap popularity points. These Christmas cards often contain a picture of an important project undertaken or owned by the business (buildings and artworks are always popular) and they usually make no reference whatsoever to religion.

These corporate Christmas cards usually sit on a secretary's desk until the first working day after Christmas, but that matters not; it remains vitally important to send the card. Forgetting to send a card to an important client is considered the ultimate snub in certain business circles. Thus, the creation of a Christmas card list is often given high priority by middle management.

It is interesting to note that although HR managers across the globe deliberate for hours over corporate Christmas card lists, very few staff members receive Christmas cards from their own company.

Personal Christmas Cards

Personal Christmas cards are a private hell for many people. You may buy your mother a diamond-studded BMW for Christmas, but if you forget to stick a Christmas card on the dashboard, expect to be written out of the family will on Boxing Day.

If you're not familiar with organising Christmas cards, but you feel obliged to do so, it can be a bewildering experience. Below, several frequently-asked questions are answered.

Q. Must I really send Christmas cards?
A. It's entirely up to you. It's considered polite, if that matters to you. If you think it will make the recipient smile, it's worth sending it.

Q. When should I start organising my personal Christmas cards?
A. Right now. Failing that, start around the first weekend of December.

Q. To whom should I send a card?
A. Family and friends. Make a list (and check it twice!): your good friends, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, children, if applicable. The more devout will send cards to casual friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc. Some people send cards to their regular haunts: a favourite bookstore, record store, cafe and nightclub. Well, maybe not nightclub. Some people send cards to their boss; only do this if you actually like your boss. Otherwise, you will not be fooling anyone.

Q. What kind of cards should I send?
A. Nice ones. The cheapest and simplest option is to buy a box of generic cards. Your local newsagency or supermarket should sell boxes of cards with various pleasant pictures (see above). Or, remember that Nature favours the brave: consider making your own cards. If you do, don't use letters cut out of a newspaper.

Q. What should I write?
A. Herein lies the quandry. If the recipient is a good friend, there's nothing you can say in a Christmas card that you haven't already told them. If you don't speak to them often, you can't wax lyrical about how much you care.

Aim for a nice phrase. Try and add a personal touch:

"Dear x, Wishing you a merry festive season and a wonderful new year. Hope the y is going well! See you at z. Best wishes, your-name-here."

where x is the recipient's name, y is their job or hobby and z is the next time you'll see them. If z is more than four months from the time of writing, "See you soon" will do nicely.

Q. When should I post the cards?
A. Two weekends before Christmas. Postal companies tend to be very overloaded during the silly season, and relatives like to have your card on the mantelpiece for Christmas Day.

Q. What should I do with the Christmas cards people send me?
A. As a rule of thumb, keep them until New Year's Day. If you have a Christmas tree, you could comfortably keep them on display until you take the tree down. After that, feel free to throw them away - but throw them directly in the trash. No one likes to see their own card in the kitchen bin.

Q. What if I am not religious?
A. Most stores carry non-religious cards with unoffensive reindeer or Santa Claus getting personal with Mrs Claus. Some stores sell cards for a number of religions or non-religions. The spirit of the card is not the religion, but the thought.

Christianity may not be your religion of choice. Christmas may not be your ideal public holiday. But your card may make someone smile. For many non-Christians, that's reason enough to send a card.

1 Thank you, my lord and master, P. J. O'Rourke.