Christmas cards used to be a wonderful way of keeping in touch at least once a year with old friends. I have just received my first Christmas card, however, and it was from someone who merely signed his name.

Either I have dropped to his "C" list, which is entirely possible, or he has opted for cold expediency over warm tradition.

I came from a family in which Christmas cards were a highly developed way of keeping up distant friendships.

My parents kept lists from year to year, bought nice cards and faithfully wrote long messages full of news about the family. A card signed merely with their names was unthinkable.

The ritual was performed at the dining room table over the course of several evenings, with my mother making sure my father did his fair share. With any luck of the draw, the family that got his handwritten note one year would get my mother's handwritten note the next, thus ensuring that every other year, at least, old friends would get a legible update on the state of my parents' union.

I undertook the Christmas card ritual some years ago with this particular tradition very much in mind, and for the first few years I insisted that the cards include meaningful messages and personal touches.

In an age that has all but given up the art of letter writing, the annual Christmas card had by then become one of the few reliable vehicles for staying in touch. This is a mobile society, and lots of us can't afford to reach out and touch someone with a push-button phone.

As the years progressed, however, and time got shorter, the messages on the cards we sent out got briefer, just as they did on the cards we received.

A Christmas card, as everyone knows, is not the place to share bad news. "Hi, the kids are fine, Rupert's sex change didn't work, but we're all making the best of it, Happy New Year," doesn't quite strike the right note.

Fortunately, misfortunes of that magnitude are rare, so few of us have to deal with them on cards.

A lot of us, however, rearrange families during the course of the year, a development rarely viewed as good news but one that distant friends may only have a chance to discover in this annual rite of communication.

Thus it was that a few years ago, mysteriously signed cards began showing up in the mail. Cards that were once signed "Margaret, Bob and the kids," complete with updates on how little Huey, Louis and Dewey were doing, began arriving with the following cryptic signature: "Margaret and the kids."

What on earth had happened to Bob? Had he died? Disappeared? Run off with his secretary? Or merely refused to partake in the Christmas card rite for which Margaret had suitably wreaked her revenge by literally writing him off?

Given these possibilities, how does one handle Bob's disappearance? If he's merely refused to sign Christmas cards that year, that's no reason for his friends to get into the middle of a domestic spat by sending a card addressed only to Margaret.

But if he's gone to his reward and the card goes to Margaret and Bob, that makes you look foolish, and Margaret feel rotten.

It is proof positive you don't care enough about her family to know of her loss and Bob's misfortune. If he's run away, however, that only makes matters worse.

Margaret will take a card addressed that way and toss it forthwith into the garbage, then write you off as a friend since you are obviously bent on insisting that Bob remains worthy of recognition as a human being.

To be fair, Margaret was caught in an etiquette trap. Whatever the reason for Bob's disappearance from the Christmas card, it was probably not good news.

On the other hand, Margaret probably was feeling a compulsion to maintain traditions in the face of tragedy, yet she also has the good manners not to go into details about it on the card.

Thus, she ended up creating a Christmas mystery.

In Margaret's case this was all resolved very nicely a couple of years later when a card arrived from "Margaret, John and the kids," and the return address broke the news that Margaret had a new last name. Since she is too old to be adopted, the only conclusion one could draw was that Margaret had remarried someone named John.

I'll admit I felt funny addressing a warm greeting to someone I'd never heard of, but it was good to know that Margaret had her life back in order. Christmas cards may be briefer these days, but if you know how to read them they're still a great way of keeping up with old friends.