There are many things I love about this day. Being with family. A religious service. Exchanging gifts. The meal. Nat King Cole's

Christmas Album

and Sid Mark spinning Sinatra, both in the background. But when the house gets quiet, I'll partake in a more personal tradition: slowly reviewing this year's Christmas cards.

I enjoy sending and receiving, and Rule No. 1 is that if you like the latter, you have to do the former. We usually get ours out a little after Thanksgiving, which is also when I put a small box in the kitchen to collect the incoming. Everybody in our house knows the rules: You can peruse the cards so long as you return them to the box. That's because while we all take a peek in the midst of the normal pre-Christmas crush, what I most enjoy is reviewing them when a quiet time presents itself on Christmas Day.

Mostly it's a take stock moment, but with some sadness too.

By my Christmas card index, I guess I've had another good year. My address hasn't changed and neither has that of my wife. I'm still able to send my parents a holiday greeting. And our kids are all healthy and growing nicely, hence their picture on the cover of our card, under the word Peace.

I can't say the same for everyone on our address list.

Going over the names a few weeks ago, I noted more to update than just some street numbers. A smattering of divorces and a couple of deaths marred the 2011 list. Some names of friends who won't see another Christmas I refuse to remove. I may no longer be mailing them cards, but seeing their names every year is a great reminder of past love and friendship.

Divorces present some difficult calls. Who stays on the list? Him? Her? Both?

A cultural anthropologist would have a field day looking at what we send and receive. The entire process requires much decision making. "Merry Christmas" or "Season's Greetings"? Photograph or no photograph? If you do the picture, do parents get in, or just the kids? Religious or secular stamp? And are you signing or just sending?

I have just one hard and fast rule. I may have warmed to doing my shopping online, but I can't give full credit for electronically sent cards. You have to put in a little more effort than blasting your e-mail list.

There are some family's cards I look forward to receiving. Some because they're usually over the top. Others because they come from characters. This year brought some great greetings. Pat and Diane Croce ("Wishing you a vast and hearty holiday season"). Daylin and Jen Leach ("Wishing you and your family a happy, harmonious, low-cal, no-need-for-the-fire-extinguisher, bail-bondsman-free holiday season"). Zack and Deb Stalberg ("Now bring us some figgy pudding").

My buddy Paul Lauricella is a Philadelphia trial lawyer who missed his calling writing for Saturday Night Live. Every year he sends out some biting political humor along with a holiday message. This year, he took my advice and avoided a Jerry Sandusky design, but took a shot at Joe Paterno ("Knows who has been naughty, but refused to do anything about it"), as well as some GOP presidential candidates. Of Mitt Romney, who's been accused of flip-flopping on issues, Paul writes, "supported Hanukkah in the 1990s before embracing Christmas.

I may not even remember that some of the people who send me cards have kids, but I still get a kick out of hearing where they went to camp and that they made the honor roll.

I even like the long letters with a rundown of the year that people sometimes tuck inside their card. I don't know the Weckerly family from Limerick but every year they send me their card and I read the accompanying "Weckerly Wire" from start to finish. This year, I was sorry to hear that Eileen's position at St. Eleanor's was eliminated (and my fingers are crossed that she gets a new job). I'm glad that Amanda is settled in at Immaculata. I'm thrilled that Claire continues to thrive academically, and that Kristin developed a "killer ace-serve" in CYO volleyball. Best of all, Nana Weckerly celebrated her centennial birthday!

The secret to the season? It's in the cards.

Contact Michael Smerconish at www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.