This time of year brings holiday rituals: trimming the tree, posing with Santa, buying that yellow stuff called Egg Nog and leaving the mall with charge slips rustling in your pocket. Another ritual is firing up Excel and Word, checking the list to see who's still alive, adding a few names and addresses, and doing a mail merge to create an annual Christmas mailing. Each year, my house gets dozens of cards sent by friends and family who themselves navigate the hazards of sending annual greetings. More than a few of my secular or non-Christian friends send cards with no reference to Christmas. A friend with Middle East clients sent a card with a palm tree on the front. "Happy Holidays," it said. Religious friends send a card with Madonna and Child, halos aglow. Some just send a New Year's card. But that's not the toughest choice. The tough part is how to personalize the card. For me, getting one of these is a report card on my relationships. Did I get a mere signature? Well! I guess I'm not that good a friend. A quick note? That's better, but I'm still not in the first tier. Best is a note that refers to something we did together with a sincere offer to another see each other "soon." Then there's the annual letter, a ritual hazardous and ripe for parody. It's okay for parents to love their children and tell their doings, but if a boastful, status-seeking quality slips into prose gone windy, watch it! Better to understate. If your kid's at Harvard, say she's enjoying Boston. (They'll know and appreciate your modesty.) If you have a cat or dog, say nothing. Nobody but you understands that relationship, or cares. Of course, lying is permitted and sometimes expected. If you're kid has another 5 years in the state penitentiary, that's when you say he's spending time in the "Walla Walla wine country." It's okay. People will appreciate creativity. I have one friend who had a perfect family photo, everybody smiling, faces unshadowed, but for one problem: a non-family friend stood with them, and that person would be unknown to most others. The solution? She was "disappeared" using PhotoShop. Magic! No one noticed, except that friend who opened her card, saw the altered photo, and wondered whether her status had changed, Stalin style. Another measure of status is the thickness and quality of envelope and card. You can spot pricey cards by the frilly gold letters, embossed type, heavy stock, and hand-tied ribbons. A photo showing a Euro ski vacation or their villa in Tuscany ("we sipped chianti with our new friends and denounced U.S. foreign policy") completes the message. On the other end of the status meter, there's always Hallmark or Kinkos. I've thought of doing a parody of the high-end cards by sending out a copied photo of a Ralph Lauren family, with text describing our achieving family's photo safari in Africa, First Class to the Third World. But parody is tricky. What if some took this as an insult for their own high-status messages? They can't help it if they can afford First Class. Or worse, what if someone took my card as serious? On my list, I have my dad's sister and her husband, both in their 90s, and other friends in their 20s. So what do you do? Once I told myself to send greetings earlier so I could boast of a first-place finish in the holiday rush. But I'm annoyed with anything Christmas before Thanksgiving, so I scratched that idea. A few weeks ago, I worked like mad to get my message prepared. If I do say so, it was a tastefully brief recitation of the year's events (suckup alert: I mentioned the launch of Crosscut), a message of good cheer to all, far and wide. I got it done at midnight, celebrated my quick progress, and dropped a bundle at the Post Office. Then in a few days the calls started, first a couple, then more. In my haste to apply labels and stamps, I had omitted my letter in an unknown number of envelopes. To add to my embarrassment, the Post Office, stamped "received with no contents" on the outside of the envelopes, as if the federal government, which had taken us into Iraq, was trying to say, "You can't blame us for this screw up!" It could have been signed by George W. Bush. My friends were almost alarmed. They had no idea anyone could be so stupid. Instead their tone suggested that maybe the Bush Administration had dealt another blow to our civil liberties. I wish. So as 2007 draws to a conclusion, I'm going to cut myself and a lot of others some slack. Each card that comes in the mail, modest, macho or incomplete, is from a desire to connect, to honor a moment, to celebrate family and friends, and to create good cheer. That's a good thing, and only a Scrooge would think otherwise. So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Now, have I told you about the cutest thing our dog did last summer?