2017. The year that divided Britain. Be it Brexit, Trump, a return to two-party politics or even Bake-Off’s move to Channel 4, this has been a year of us versus them. Old vs young. National vs immigrant. Change vs staying the same. Mel, Sue and Mary vs Paul Hollywood. Battle lines have been drawn and each side is sticking steadfastly to them.
This Christmas, I wanted to challenge this. To see out a year of divisiveness with a throw of the goodwill dice. That’s why I sent 500 handmade cards to 500 people I didn’t know.
Let me explain. I work for a research company, so for a little bit of festive fun we shunned the client Christmas card budget (sorry clients) and replicated an experiment from 1976, in which American social scientists Phillip Kunz and Michael Woollcott sent 578 cards to randomly selected strangers to see how many replied.
Taking liberties with job descriptions, I coerced colleagues into creating handmade cards and sent them to the 500 randomly selected and evenly spread addresses across the UK wishing the recipient a Merry Christmas.
A printed note was included in all cards to explain that no, this wasn’t a scam, spam or junk mail, that it was in fact an experiment, complete with a postal return address and a link to the experiment on social media via the hashtag #giftofahello.
In the 1970s trial, 117 (or more than 20% responded) with a Christmas card or a letter of their own. Many of these correspondences continued for years after. Admittedly, it was hard to envisage anything like this occurring in 2017 Britain. I was wrong.
This time a mere 15 people sent Christmas cards back (3%) but the experiment landed more than 2,000 responses on social media.
Those who replied loved this random act of Christmas kindness, and they represented a delightfully broad spectrum of age and demographic.
Some of my favourite responses included:
“It’s a busy world we live in and it was nice to receive a card from a stranger." Anne & family (Card Number 303)
“The card made me smile and was very much appreciated. The world needs more lovely people like you!” Bev
“Yours is the only card I’ve received so much appreciated. What a nice idea!” Sacha
Some were long responses, others short, but each left me with that same warm feeling. They also raised a bigger question: our nation loves Christmas, but is the age of spreading seasonal goodwill over? Was my nan right? Were things better in the Seventies?
Unsurprisingly, Christmas greetings have moved online. Yet it seems that in our fake news saturated, divided, warier, digital-first, social-media-at-our-fingertips times, a lovingly made Christmas greeting from a stranger is gratefully received. It’s never been more important to put pen to paper and send a little Christmas love.
Indeed, the vast majority of Brits say they still want to send and receive real cards in the classic Christmas tradition.
In a survey of 2,000 people conducted alongside the experiment, 79% of Brits said they’d love to receive Christmas cards.
All of this points to an age-old fact that’s as true today as it was in the Seventies: Christmas is a time for giving and coming together.
So why not spread some Christmas love? Get involved and send a #giftofahello too. There’s still time to make someone smile this festive season - even a stranger...