I don't want to moan or anything, but where are all my Christmas cards?

I certainly don't wish to fill a column which has got to last you for the next two weeks with something which will sound like a purely personal grievance. But where on earth are all my Christmas cards? By my reckoning there are now only half a dozen postal deliveries before Christmas Day and yet, according to this morning's count, I have a mere 47 cards pasted to the parallel strips of gold tape which for more years than I can remember have been a focal point of interest in my living room during the festive season.

Now, I completely understand that many poor, lonely and downright anti-social people might think it was their lucky year if they were to receive even half the number of cards I've so far assembled in near- perfect symmetry on my hanging tapes. But gross numbers only tell half the story. What matters so critically in this context is the ratio between the total number of cards sent and the total number of cards received. I'm not obsessive enough about this ratio to look for perfect equivalence. There are always friends who've decided to move abroad or give Christmas a miss on ideological grounds. What is, however, so intolerable this year is the bald statistical news that so far I have received 26 fewer cards than I have sent. Twenty-six.

Whichever way you look at this figure it's impossible not to conclude that 26 people who I've always regarded as personal friends have, with cold deliberation, decided this Christmas not to think of me in a similar manner.

There's nothing in the least paranoid about my choice of that phrase "cold deliberation". As I make a point of sending out all my cards in the second week of December, we're looking here at a situation in which those 26 missing people have not only decided to leave me off their list, but have done so while my own card is sitting unreciprocated on their mantelpiece. They've even been prepared to endure the periodic bursts of shame which will surely occur when visitors flick through their card collection and casually remark, "Oh, I see you have a nice card from good old Laurie."

I have, of course, considered the possibility that this year's dramatic shortfall might in some way be related to the type of cards I've chosen to send. One wouldn't, for example, expect perfect reciprocity if one had sent out cards featuring bobbity robins which had clearly come from a Safeways 12-pack, or indeed if one had selected charity cards which promised in small letters on the back to boost the income of the People's Dispensary for Sick Pussy Cats. But all my cards this year were clearly stamped "Amnesty International" and might, if anything, have been expected to benefit from the publicity surrounding the extradition of General Pinochet.

In the circumstances I can only be grateful that I have two dozen unused Amnesty cards which I'd set aside for people who might choose to send me a card without having been prompted by one of my own. This morning I began the delicate task of filling them with convincing messages of affection. "Happy Christmas, Laurie. Thoroughly enjoyed your piece in the Independent"; "All the best, Laurie. Love your new radio programme"; "Cheers, Laurie. Hope you can find time in your busy schedule to meet up next year".

The signatures have proved somewhat more tricky. But still, not everyone this Christmas will have a card hanging in their living room which reads, "Thanks a million for your delicious New Statesman columns. Sincerely. Gore Vidal."

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition