Back in the late '60s when the Vietnam war was tearing our world apart, many people took to scribbling a line or two of their own on printed Christmas cards to "lend a personal touch."

"It was a kind of revolt against the bleakness of that time and the growing computerization of our world," says former Hallmark executive Gaylon White.

Since then the personal touch has gotten out of hand. The brief note blossomed first into a fat paragraph, then took on a life of its own, either as a photocopy sheet tucked into the card (thus depersonalizing itself), or as a replacement for the Christmas card. What finally resulted was the annual family "newsletter" with greetings and wishes for a Merry Xeroxmas.

The personal touch -- institutionalized.

The format varies from a single sheet run off on the company Xerox machine when the boss was at lunch, to a multi-page "production number," with pictures of the whole family and chatty tidbits you are, it is assumed, hungering for.

It is said that one of man's universal traits is the urge to express himself. The detailed catalogue of the family's last 12 months is one way people get things off their chest and into their friends' mail. A strange way to spread Christmas cheer.

The world is in flames and we have to hear about baby's new tooth or Dad's hernia operation, as well as that new litter of button-cute kittens (and who wants one? First-come, first-served!). Some of these greetings go on to catalogue the valor of little Debbie when she had her tonsils out (or did we tell you last year?). They also provide blow-by-blow reports on the dandy time the whole gang had last summer in their brand new camper. (What! You didn't know we had a camper?)

When any of these windy dissertations pops up in your mail with a postmark from a distant city, it's safe to toss it away unhonored and unread. But when it's from a neighbor or someone nearby you have considered your friend, beware! iStudy it carefully or your're headed for big trouble.

Weary from my Christmas-card reading last year (I must have more than my share of friends with free access to Xerox machines), I dropped into my favorite pub. I had no sooner settled into my customary corner when a guy who looked vaguely familiar sat down beside me. We nodded to each other and made some small talk about the weather. I returned to my glass of beer.

Suddenly, I felt a tug at my coat sleeve. I looked up and saw a vaguely familiar face, frowning, "Didn't you get our card?"

Not knowing whether I had or not, but marveling at how small small talk can be, I took a long chance. "We sure did," I heard my big mouth say.

A wide grin. "What did ya think?"

Think? I couldn't imagine what this guy was driving at, but he seemed so concerned that I figured I had to say something.

"It was fabulous -- simply fabulous." I knew instantly I had blown it again.

He seemed dubious, demanding confirmation. "You mean it? You really did like it? I mean, did you like it, really?"

Naturally sympathetic, I compounded my error. "Like it? Man, that's putting it mildly. We loved it -- I mean, loved it." And even while saying this, I'm trying to remember who this nut is, and why he should send me a Christmas card.

He must have sensed something so he explained that his wife is a friend of our city counselor's wife. (Any closer relationship with this kind of Christmas card sender and they'll bring the thing over and read it to you in person.)

Now that the bonds of friendship had been newly cemented, he beamed, "Wasn't that something -- Charlie's chipmunk?"

"Who's Charlie," I wanted to ask and, not being an outdoorsman, I almost added, "What's a chipmunk?"

There was no need for me to say anything. He found his opening and he steamrollered through it with the same ease Charlie (his little shaver) had shown when he picked up his baby chipmunk. I was to learn that this was only one of the many exciting things that had happened during the gang's camping trip at Lake Ha-Se-Ha-Hah last July. I was further informed that it was the same chipmunk and this same Charlie who appeared on the front page of that six-page Christmas card I liked so much, but couldn't seem to remember anything about.

And so, for the next quarter hour, with my back against the bar and his forefinger making points right under my nose, I was treated to a line-by-line memorized recital of all the wonderful things that had happened to his family, all duly recorded (some in rhyme!) on those six pages.

That done (and there were long moments when I thought it never would be), he went on to tell me about all the comments that card had provoked.

I was despairing of ever making my escape when another poor wretch had the ill luck to mount the stool to our right. I gulped my beer and mumbled something about being triple-parked, so I had better run, but not before I heard Charlie's proud pappy ask the newcomer:

"What did you think of our Christmas card this year?"