India Hicks Reflects on Her Tradition of the Bread and Butter Letter

The excitement of the holidays, but the dread of the thank you letters to come. I remember the feeling so well.

Snap and snap, the sound of our writing cases opening, as we squeezed back the brass catches. What? You didn’t have a smart little writing case with your initials embossed on the top left hand corner? Well, neither did I. My sister did, of course. As the eldest child she was given a brand spanking new case. It was glossy, grown-up red leather, and perfect. All I dreamt of was that writing case. But as the third child I got the hand-me-down, my grandmother’s pigskin writing case, peeling edges, slightly battered, a little scratched. Handed down first to my mother, from her mother, and then to me. Their initials clearly marked on the top left hand corner. No one ever got around to adding my initials. Now, of course, I delight in having that case and the stories it carries. Stuff my sister’s glossy, red history-less case doesn’t have.

We were made to sit side-by-side at the table, with the family writing paper staring unforgivingly in front of us, as the nursery clock tick-tocked slowly on. The letter had to be dated and correctly addressed…Dear Godfather Charles (yep, him)…and then we had to thank them for the present, say something about how much we liked it, what we intended to do with it and ask how their holiday had been. And just as you thought you could finish, Nanny would remind us that any self-respecting, properly brought up child would write enough to go over the page. Terrible manners not to go over the page. Appalling, in fact.
 Then we would have to begin all over again working our way down the seemingly endless list of aunts, uncles, grandparents and Godparents.

I thought that once I was an adult the bread and butter letter would no longer be faced with dread. The art of gratitude would flow freely from my fingertips in a flourish of good manners. Mistake. After I became an adult, I gave birth four times, and then fostered a fifth. You know what that means–not having a moment to compose a letter of grace and wit yourself, but standing over five children, forcing them to put pen to paper as they shout back “You’re just so old fashioned. No one does this stuff anymore!”

This year, after the holidays, feeling overwhelmed by the thought of going back to work and getting the kids off to school, I let them persuade me that writing a thank you note via email was fine. “Everyone’s doing it, Mum.” In fact, bread and butter text messages seem even more common…’grt8 pres thks‘. Good God, what would Nanny think? 
Now I’ve let the standard slip. Is there any turning back? Or do I need to go with the flow?

Nichola Hunt

Cocktail aficionado. Large dog breed lover. Fondness of summer dresses. Hater of pickles. Born in London, based in Bali.

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