It's not a moment too soon to be thinking of sending Christmas cards -- for next Christmas.
My favorite variant of the often tiresome annual ritual requires almost a year of preparation. This variation is not a common custom yet -- I know of only one person who has followed it -- but the advantages should be obvious, starting with furthering the inclusive camaraderie of the holiday season.
My introduction to this singular custom came decades ago when a holiday card arrived in the mail signed by a woman I didn't know -- let's call her Carol, because I no longer remember her name -- "and Charles."
The return address on the envelope was that of an inspiring high-school teacher and valued friend, Dr. Charles Goddard. That explained Charles' signature, but Carol, the primary signatory, was a mystery, and there was no further explanation enclosed in the otherwise traditional Christmas card.
Charles was not only unmarried; he was gay. Had he taken up residence with the mysterious Carol, perhaps in a relationship of convenience in the dark closet of mid-20th-century America?
The following December I received another holiday card, in a very different style, signed by someone else I didn't know ... "and Charles." Again there was no further clue on the murky domestic relationship between Charles and my newest Christmas card correspondent.
Charles was never one to explain excessively. He was a Socratic teacher, challenging his students to think for themselves through wry and glancing observations and understated, deceptively obvious questions. It worked again; that second Christmas season I immediately grasped his technique and the underlying ethic:
Charles was storing the Christmas cards he received each year and sending them out to others the following year, adding only "and Charles."
The device helped me to understand the importance of two cultural phenomena that became fashionable a number of decades later: recycling and social networking.
If you'd like to save a few trees and join me in honoring a foresighted teacher and impish free spirit, now is the time to store the Christmas cards on your mantel for re-use. In December 2011, just append your name to the original senders' and mail the cards to friends, relatives and colleagues.
Feel free to add a third name to the list of senders: "and Charles."