Once upon a time there was a man who sat down to write a Christmas letter to his brother. While he was about it, he decided to make a copy for his mother. So he crossed off Dear Jack and began:

"Dear Family: It's been a bit of a tough year. Now that Emily's actually gone we seem to miss her in the darndest ways -- Molly says I even miss the smell of hairspray in the bathroom, but of course that's her usual overstatement."

Then he remembered that he ought to send something to Aunt Helen, who had always predicted his imminent divorce, so he scratched out the reference to Molly. And his old buddy Mac. It would be nice to write to Mac. But Mac had no family and probably thought Emily was still jumping rope, if he remembered who she was. So the man started over:

"Dear family and friends: Our daughter Emily is 18 this fall, and we finally got her off to college."

It did seem a bit stiff for his mother, but he let it ride. And then, oh yes, there were the people from the office. He was darned if he was going to call them his dears. So he got a fresh sheet and began:

"Holiday Greetings to All! We are happy to announce that our daughter Emily, who has been accepted at Radford College, is doing very well in her freshman year."

Actually he had no idea how she was doing, her reports being notoriously unreliable, but he let that ride, too. He thought of his colleague Bill, who everlastingly dropped into conversations the phrase "my son at Harvard." So he added, "Emily is particularly interested in the fine music program for which Radford has so long been noted." Then there was his father-in-law, the stickler for grammar. Whom has been accepted at Radford? Anyway, he put in a semicolon after music program; that would show them.

And so he went on, from step to step, producing at last a document that went out to 50 people, in a style somewhere between the interoffice memo and an advertisement for condominium life styles. His mother tut-tutted to herself, and sent back a card with a Santa Claus embossed in red plush and spackled with gold glitter that was, he and Molly agreed, in really execrable taste. What was happening to the old lady?

There is an old cautionary tale about a boy and an old man and a donkey. They start off on a trip, the man leading the donkey and the boy riding. When they pass someone who comments that such an old man should not have to walk, they switch places. Then, in response to various criticisms, they both ride together, or neither rides, or they carry one another. By the time they get to town they actually are carrying the donkey, a process so ridiculous even they begin to realize that it's no good trying to please everyone.

It isn't possible, of course, to devise a style that will please all your quirky relatives, or impress them in the various ways that you wish to impress them. But suppose you must write a Christmas circular: you have 37 relatives and 150 acquaintances and besides it's a family tradition. All right then, here are the rules:

1. Don't generalize. As in, "This has been a banner year for the Success Family." Such an opening only can lead to a paragraph about each member in which each is shown to be as bannered as the other, and there are bound to be some stretchers. On the other hand, you hardly can start by saying that the year has been a disaster. It is Christmas.

2. Do be specific. Tell them the facts. These will be redundant for some of your readers and mysterious to others, but never mind. Tell stories: Talk about the day Emily left, and what she said and what you said and what happened after the car wouldn't start and how Emily saved the day. Make them laugh.

3. If you must boast -- and breathes there a middle-class heart so dead it doesn't long to boast of its family and itself? -- then boast straight out. Write an advertisement for yourselves, send out a news release, crib from the Hallelujah Chorus. Don't be formal or ornate, or use words that you wouldn't use in a conversation.

4. Above all else, avoid euphemism. Sympathy comes more easily when things are called by their names. If what has happened cannot be mentioned, so be it. But if you do mention it, be straightforward. I once read about a distant cousin of the Success Family who was "exploring alternative life styles." Burning with curiosity, I called my mother. "Oh her," she said casually, "she got a divorce." And there I had been imagining nudist colonies, at least.

There are some very nice cards available. It's true that the scribbled line in a card doesn't represent keeping up, but there's nothing wrong with writing a real letter in August. And the scribbled line may, finally, convey the Christmas spirit better than the photocopy. Or, failing that, you always can write separately to your three best friends and order 100 pictures of the kids or the dog on readymade postcards.

A few people, of course, can write lovely circulars, full of warmth, full of the sound of their own voices, full of interesting tidbits and anecdotes, letters that give us a smile and a moment of communion. A few people, and you just may be lucky enough to be one of them.