This time of year always reminds me of my father’s annual ritual of sending out Christmas cards. Every December, he approached the task with the rigour and planning of a small military operation. First, and most importantly, was the drawing up of the list – each year, the backbone of old friends, extended family, fellow writers and colleagues would be added to, to include new people he had met over the previous twelve months. Then there was the bulk-buying of stamps, the ordering and addressing of envelopes (handwritten, until well into the 2000s when his assistant revealed to him the wonder of printed address labels), the working out of last postal dates, the composing of individual personal messages. His desk became an assembly line with the kitchen table often acting as an overflow, while the hall table was hidden under sliding drifts of envelopes ready to be posted. As the years went on and his life became busier and less his own, we’d sometimes urge him to scale back a bit, give himself a break, only send cards to his nearest and dearest – but he never did. In spite of the time and effort it took, and the constant anxiety that he'd forgotten someone, he actually enjoyed the task and to me it seemed a reflection of the great store he set by his friendships, and the care he took in maintaining them.
And then there were the cards themselves. Almost every year, for over thirty years, he produced a card of his own, featuring a poem and sometimes a drawing, and usually designed and beautifully printed by his close friend Peter Fallon of The Gallery Press. Often the poems had an obvious seasonal relevance – ‘Christmas Eve’, one of the earliest in 1978; ‘Holly’ in 2005 – but others sent out a more universal message, a thought or a sentiment to carry forward into the new year. One such was ‘The Settle Bed’ in 1989, for which he commissioned me to do a line-drawing of the 'pew-straight, bin-deep' piece of furniture itself. I say ‘commission’ because he did just that – sending a funny, faux-formal letter, and even paying me. I wasn’t a particularly gifted draughtsman, but I loved being part of the project, and the original drawing is framed in our family home to this day. The next year, I did a follow-up drawing for ‘Field of Vision’, and in 2003, he used one of my early childhood drawings of a nativity scene to accompany ‘I Sing of a Maiden’, a translation of an old Irish verse.
My career as an illustrator began and ended with those three cards, but I treasure them still, all the more in our age of email and instant messaging. And while I miss that envelope dropping through the letter box, the memory of it spurs me on to keep up the tradition – to buy the stamps, write the messages, send the cards, and mark the passing of the year with those I love.
- Catherine Heaney
A selection of Seamus Heaney’s Christmas cards will be on display in the Library of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, from 18th December. Visit www.seamusheaneyhome.com for more details.