Now that Christmas is over, I must make one of the biggest single decisions of the year - my annual Christmas card contest must be settled.
This ritual began 10 years ago when I was given a Christmas scrapbook that provides a spot to paste "my favorite card" for the year. Until then, the cards that arrived throughout December would live on, after being opened and read, simply in the the form of a display that spread across the mantel and cascaded onto nearby surfaces.
But once I knew that come season's end I would be choosing my favorite card, the mere display was transformed into something of a beauty pageant. Which of these beauties will wear the crown?
I like being judge of this pageant, even if the cards I send out would not even make the semifinals. (Often I acquire my cards at yard sales.) But that has never stopped me from having the highest of standards when looking over the cards other people send me.
Judge not, it is said. But I figured the principle didn't apply in this case. After all, my judgments didn't harm those folks who, after all, had no idea they were engaged in such a competition.
No one knew, that is, until I breached the secrecy a few years ago in one of those intense Christmas conversations I have with my sister and my niece.
We are people who do Christmas under the full weight of tradition. Christmas isn't Christmas, we've been raised to believe, unless the woman of the house bakes at least a half-dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, some of them Swedish. In the midst of talking about the joy or burden of such traditions, I told them about my own little tradition, the annual Christmas Card Contest.
Now the two of them vie furiously for the crown. Each believes she won last year's contest, and they're asking me to tell them which of them remembers correctly. I am telling them I can't find my Christmas book.
My niece sent me two cards this year - to increase her chances, she declared.
"Oh please," she penned on one of them, appealing to a higher power than me. "All I want for Christmas is to win that contest." Me, I pray for peace on earth, goodwill toward all.
Yet the contest will go on. It's a tough job, I figure, but that's what I'm here for.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, I'm thinking that next year I might send out, with my Christmas cards, hints and guidelines to help the other unwitting contestants.
Here are a few guidelines that would-be pageant winners should heed:
1) Skip the pictures of candles. They are stodgy.
2) Ice-skating scenes are nice, but as far as my contest is concerned, you're skating on thin ice.
3) Don't bother with open Bibles set among poinsettias. (Even if poinsettias are not, in fact, poisonous, I've seen enough of them.)
4) Forget cutsie bears riding in sleighs. They belong in the same first-grade classrooms as big-eyed bunnies and puppies wearing Santa hats.
5) I always like pictures of the family; but if that's the card, forget the contest.
6) I go for a card that is elegant and elaborate, such as some of those complex laser cuts, or a well-executed gimmick that pops out or brings in the third dimension.
7) A beautiful nature card will at least get you into the running. (Currently, a card with three gray-brown wolves howling in the snow will be a major challenge for other contenders.)
Christmas is a season for giving, and I look forward each year to giving the prize.
*April Moore is the editor of two national newsletters for school administrators. She lives near Orkney Springs, Va.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society