Bracing for the long haul, I stationed myself in front of the card rack.

Bracing for the long haul, I stationed myself in front of the card rack.

Not everything having to do with the holidays takes an eternity. For Thanksgiving, our hosts roasted a turkey over charcoal on an outdoor grill, and in only six and a half hours, the bird was cooked. Polishing silver takes even less time, probably just a shade over three hours even if you do the sugar spoons and all the individual butter knives.

Selecting Christmas cards, though, is a different matter altogether. People new to the Christmas card custom -- young adults, religious converts, people who never felt like bothering before but now they have pictures of their grandchildren -- may think they can zip into a store and pick up a box of cards in the time it takes for the light to change. But of course choosing cards takes much more time than that. First-timers might be advised to bring a snack.

For one thing, cards are arranged according to a meticulous system similar to biological classification. Here "Cards" is the phylum and the card types are ranked according to subtle differences in text and illustrations, right down to the genus (say, dogs) and species (Snoopy).

You have your Contemporary cards, for example, mostly one color, often white, with simple round-headed angels, or perhaps one reindeer, sketched in flight with two or three pen strokes. Photographs are popular in this category, particularly forest scenes after a snowfall but before the hiking club has trudged through.

Traditional cards are well, they look to the untutored eye a lot like classic cards, but in fact, the two categories are entirely discrete. Traditional cards involve lots of plaid and scenes of spaniels and hunters on horseback, and classic cards feature pictures of Santa Claus, with rosy cheeks and shiny boots, everything just as you picture it except no Coke bottle.

Unless I have them backward, and it's traditional cards that have Santa, not to mention pajama-clad children peeking over the stair rail.

Thomas Kinkade is in one of those categories. You know Thomas Kinkade, who paints the pictures of cottages with yellow lamplight shining from the windows, and churches with yellow lamplight shining from the windows and entire villages with yellow lamplight shining from the windows? Either Thomas Kinkade is a great artist who has tapped into the inchoate yearning of each one of us for hearth and home, or he isn't, and we move on to the next category, which is Religious.

It's ironic, isn't it, that one of the most important Christian holidays -- as I understand it, second only to Easter -- is celebrated in such a variety of secular ways that Religious cards are just one category of many, and a fairly small category at that?

Next come Cute cards (adorable bunnies, cuddly kittens, cute-as-a-pin chickadees and baby angels) and Humorous cards, which can be summarized by three words: naughty elf tattoos.

As for me, I chose a box with uncharacteristic speed. Of course, unlike earlier years, when I had fixed ideas about the printed message (mustn't say anything I might want to say myself), color of envelope (must be a color) and shape (nothing that would demand extra postage), I asked for little except that the card and its message not offend me.

Now I have only to write messages, sign our names, address and mail them.

With luck, I won't have time to polish the silver.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer. E-mail her at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.