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Head Strong | The joy of simple messages

Christmas cards and family updates may seem hokey, but they honor a year of triumph, love, loss and life.

Some annual rituals trigger a gut check. They are our placeholders, our means of measurement outside of the same marked-up calendars with the same symmetrical boxes year after year. Sending and receiving Christmas cards is one such ritual for me.

Christmas cards are a big deal in my house. We like sending a family card, and we relish receiving them from friends. Each year we invest significant time in deciding what our card will look like. And when - like this year - we can't reach a consensus, we send multiple cards and try to match the form of greeting to the recipients' personalities.

Last summer, our kids risked life and limb re-creating the Beatles' famous walk across Abbey Lane. Angry Brits beeped their horns and yelled, "Yank, go home!" as our three sons and one daughter stood in the crosswalk while my wife and I framed the digital image. I love the resulting picture and had it matched with a holiday message, "Come Together" - the title, you'll recall of the first song on Side A of the album

Abbey Road

. But when I shared the story of the photo shoot on the radio, my wife said I'd spoiled it, hence our lack of consensus.

This year, we have three cards we send out, matching card to personality. While I'm partial to Abbey Road, my wife favors a more traditional shot from a different leg of the summer trip, with a 16th-century castle as a backdrop. Then there's our third selection. Last year, Signe Wilkinson, the political cartoonist from the Daily News, drew my head wrapped in Christmas lights and sent it to me in a personalized card. I loved it so much I got her permission to use it as my own, which I have (after convincing Kinko's there were no copyright issues). Those are our three cards.

Perhaps you're thinking this a bit bizarre. Lately I encounter many people who find Christmas cards hokey or outdated. They have problems with one version, much less three different ones.

Not me. I even like the annual family newsletters folks send out. I want to see the family picture. And learn who made the honor roll. I'm interested in where you went down the Shore. And I'm intrigued by who blankets their mailing list with a generic "Happy Holidays" vs. those bold enough to wish an outright "Merry Christmas."

Every year, a lawyer friend named Paul Lauricella works for weeks to develop a homemade, yet high-tech Christmas card - always with a liberal political message.

In years past, he's imagined an election for a new Santa Claus (Cheney Claus promised "frightened gullible children that they will be 'hit hard' if one of the other Santas is chosen") and featured a Santa equipped with toys of mass destruction. I seldom agree with what he has to say. But I love getting his card.

And it's not just the entertainment value I look forward to. For me, Christmas cards are a way to sit back and take stock of another year. If you look closely, the good, the bad and the ugly are all in the cards.

As is our routine, I printed our address list a few weeks ago and left it for my wife's perusal. There were many changes from last year. The older we get, the more entries we must alter for the two D's: divorce and death.

Divorce is a tough call. Do you send a card to him or her? Neither? Both? What if you were never as close to her, but she has custody of the kids and you want them to know you're thinking of them? It's a Larry David Holiday Special waiting to happen.

Dealing with the deaths is always difficult. My Rolodex is filled with individuals who have long since passed but whose names I can't bear to remove. Frank L. Rizzo is still on my list. Herb Barness. Russell Byers. Thacher Longstreth. Jay Waldman. And my legal mentor, James Beasley. It's not that I'd forget them if I removed them from my list. Maybe I just look forward to the opportunity to remember them – a chance I know I'll have around this time every year. This year, my maternal grandmother, Victoria Grovich, joined that list. Still, I refuse to take Nanny's name away. Same with a World War II vet named Don Daly. We just lost him.

When my wife returned our list to me this year, there were other notations that summed up the year in review, such as "moved," "on the outs," and my personal favorite, "indicted/prison." Yes, as John Lennon sang, "Another year older, and a new one just begun."

The ritual of the Christmas cards carries this lesson: The status quo is often just fine. Most of us aren't the baseball player or ballerina we'd dreamed we'd become as kids. And sure, the in-laws may be a pain, and the car might be dented or wheezing. Six years after the war in Iraq began, Osama bin Laden still taunts us, and the war lumbers on without end or truth in sight.

Maybe you're not going anywhere for the holidays. Not that going someplace tropical would help, since you're not the 36 waist you used to be and your wife might never see a size 6, 8 or 10 again.

But if your family is alive and together, you're in good shape - no matter what your waistline. So be thankful. Because who knows what's in the cards for next year?