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Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 18:01 GMT
What do your Christmas cards say about you?

The 1999 Downing Street Christmas card The new "statesman": Tony and Cherie Blair's seasonal greeting

As Prime Minister Tony Blair can testify, what's on the front of the Christmas cards you send can say more about you than what is written inside.

The newspapers have enjoyed interpreting the picture of Mr and Mrs Blair on the front of this year's festive greeting from Number 10.

Taken by society snapper Terry O'Neill, the portrait of Tony and Cherie in one of the Downing Street state rooms has been called "presidential" by the Mirror.

Clinton card: The weather outside is frightful...
The paper notes that the "solemn" card departs from the style of the Blairs' previous cards, which included the entire family.

It suggests with another child on the way, Mr Blair is keen to appear more "statesman" than family man.

Ironically, President Clinton has shied away from the "presidential" style. His card shows a painting of the interior of the White House - though not the now infamous Oval Office.

Reminiscent of a Hello magazine spread, the card shows the State Dining Room, recently refurbished by the First Lady.

With snow falling outside and a blazing fire in the hearth, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln gazes benevolently on the deserted room.

Festive fog: the Tory's card
Back in the UK, critics have yet to deconstruct the meaning of the Conservative Party's Christmas card - a Monet painting showing a thick fog descending on Westminster.

Of course, this choice of card may not have any real significance. Charlotte Powell, head designer at the Charity Christmas Card Council, says a recent Royal Academy exhibition has boosted sales of "off-the-peg" Monet cards.

"Some people want a card that doesn't say anything about anything," reckons Ms Powell, whose firm also offers bespoke cards for corporate clients.

"I think for bespoke - the clients want to stand out from the crowd or want the card to reflect something very specific about themselves."

Reflect, celebrate, anticipate: The BBC looks to 2000
Powell says companies are increasingly keen to use Christmas cards as an extension of their corporate branding, with traditional imagery such as the Three Wise Men being replaced by logos.

Etiquette guide Debrett's laments the end of the "simple" seasonal greeting.

"Christmas cards are now used for all manner of personal and professional promotion: even the Royal Family now send out cards showing their beaming children."

The BBC has certainly not wasted the opportunity to promote itself with the 30,000 Christmas cards the corporation send out.

Corporate Publications Manager Claire Dresser says that apart from being visually arresting, the elaborate cards attempt to "reflect the BBC's millennium coverage".

Showing fireworks, a baby and the broadcaster's "millennium" dandelion motif - as well as some Christmassy snowflakes - the cards look to the New Year with a palpable enthusiasm.

With the new millennium just days away, one would think that cards with a similar forward-looking and contemporary feel would be dominating sales.

Traditional images are still popular
However, William Ruffman of The Greeting Card Company - who sell cards for 19 major UK charities - says traditional cards are as popular as ever.

"Many people have gone for old favourites - what might be called old-fashioned cards."

Designs with a religious theme have also proved a winner for causes such as Mencap and Scope.

But when it comes to Christmas cards it seems there is still no accounting for taste.

"What has surprised us is the breadth of choice - cards that I would never buy have sold reasonably well," says Mr Ruffman.

Those wanting to send out unique greetings, but who cannot afford bespoke cards or are too busy to dally with glitter and glue, should look to the internet.

Out with the old: Culture secretary Chris Smith's 1999 card
Some of the biggest names in the card world run websites offering you the opportunity to send personalised "e-cards" straight to the desktop of your nearest and dearest.

As well as avoiding the festive postal backlog - and saving the price of a stamp - cyber cards also have benefits for the recipient.

For the effort we put in to choosing our Christmas cards is often as nothing compared to quandary of how best to "display" - read hide - the vile ones we receive in return, bespoke or otherwise
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