View Photo Gallery: The congresswoman’s wacky, cat-centered cards are worth looking forward to all year.

Just as the Super Bowl has its pre-game show and the Academy Awards have their red carpet, Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s wacky Christmas cards have become such a happening that the countdown to the mailing is an event unto itself.

This year, the Southern California Democrat is hyping the anticipation by asking the public to vote at her Web site on the theme for her 2011 card. “Slope Side,” “Happy Trails,” and “Surf’s Up,” are among the choices. (Note that casting a ballot will get you a subscription to her e-newsletter.)

Sanchez decided to crowdsource the matter after the death of beloved cat Gretzky, her longtime co-star on the holiday mailings.

She started sending out cards in 1998, her second year in Congress, but they were fairly formal those early years — until 2002, when she added an image of the plump white furball in sunglasses, riding in the front seat of a convertible.

“Everyone went crazy,” she recalled — and a meme was born.

After that it was Gretzky lifting weights, Gretzky on the beach, Gretzky in a goalie mask. The cards also displayed a playful side of Gretzky’s owner: The congresswoman showed off toned arms while riding a motorcycle in the 2008 card (“Cruisin’ into the New Year”), leather pants in her fireside 2004 card (“Hope your holidays are smokin’!”) and a whole lotta leg in the surf-themed 2007 card. The mailings — underwritten by her campaign fund, like those of most politicians — originally went out to about half a million supporters; including emailed versions, the reach is closer to a million people now.

Of course, Sanchez’s critics and random Internet smart-alecks have had a field day with these cards. But they clearly have a following. “People get so stressed at the holiday time, it’s nice to make them chuckle when they open our card,” she told us.

When Gretzky died last year, a month shy of his 20th birthday, she considered retiring the tradition. Instead, she sent out a card featuring a montage of his old cards.

There’s no new cat in Sanchez’s life. There is, however, a new husband — she wed lawyer Jack Einwechter in July, a second marriage for both.

Maybe a wedding theme for the 2011 card?

“It’s a possibility,” she said coyly.

The congresswoman said she’ll pose for the new card this weekend, so get your votes in now.