ARE THOSE jingle bells I hear? (Or is it the incessant ringing inside my head?)

The bells herald my Annual Column about some aspect of the holiday season that vexes Ordinary Americans, such as you, me and John Bolaris. (Welcome back, John. Getting any yet?)

Last year I wrote about Christmas cards - who you send them to, and why. (The Annual Column is therapy that helps me battle the hairy demons of my Annual Crisis.)

In 2005, I swallowed hard and deleted 22 friends and family members who got cards from me for years without reciprocating. I dropped them like a soapy dish.

If you know me, you know my feelings aren't easily bruised. But if you really know me, you know I believe in courtesy, equal treatment, and one other thing, as Aretha Franklin would sing it:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

So 22 who disrespected me got cut. I saved $8.58 in postage, plus about $1 a card, for a total savings of $30.58. (I'm using it to buy a copy of "Jeffrey Dahmer's Illustrated In-Home Dining Guide.")

In previous Annual Columns I dealt with card choices - religious, humorous, generic - and even postage stamps: Ecclesiastical? Secular? U.S. flag? Marilyn? Elvis?

This year's topic is the Annual Message that a few people insert in sappy, store-bought cards. Most people don't include Annual Messages because most Americans can't string together two coherent sentences. That failure of American education stops most Annual Messages (but not blogs, oddly).

Since I can write, I do, but the Annual Message is tricky since I am without the "benefit" of an editor. Heh-heh.

[Editor's note: I'm reading this, Shamu.]

As I start the Annual Letter, a Big Question stares at me like a matador with drawn sword: How to avoid making it sound like a Donald Trump brag fest? (Trump's ego has been declared a Sixth Borough by the City of New York.)

If I write about the trips I took, the sights I saw, the Cool Whip I've bathed in, the scholastic honors achieved by my children (like that would happen), the awards I won (like that would happen), the smart investments I made (ditto) - isn't that revolting vanity? Doesn't it contain this unspoken message: "I did good and you didn't. Nyah, nyah"?

Sure, I could write only about my bad luck - on-the-job failures, unmet expectations, ceaseless criticism of my performance, the arrest of my children.

OK, that's what Andy Reid could write.

For the rest of us, maybe it is being downsized, outsourced, water-boarded. Or vacations rained out, houses that won't sell, investments that crashed. Or how did my "private" sex tape get on the Internet?

Is that how to put the ho-ho-ho into holiday cheer?

Enumerating bad luck during the season of giving subliminally suggests to those receiving your Annual Message they should send you money.

Don't count on getting any. What you'll probably get from fortunate friends is "advice."

Does anything bite more than unsolicited advice?

For Annual Messages to be welcomed in homes across America, they should be brief and written with equilibrium. Balance the good news (Junior's confirmation), with the bad news (someone dug up grandma's body).

Or - lie.

It will be hard for me to top last year's claim that I won a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe I'll award myself a MacArthur genius grant this year, or a Nobel Prize.

If Al Gore got one, why not me? *

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns: