Nothing says "happy holidays" quite like the Christmas letter.

Every year, millions of Americans feel the need to augment simple holiday greeting cards with their own newsy prose. Indeed, these letters have become as much a part of the holiday season as over-eating, camping in parking lots before Black Friday and maxing out credit cards.

Since they're unlikely to go away anytime soon, I've humbly taken it upon myself to offer a short primer on the essential components of the successful Christmas letter.

First, it's imperative that you come up with an original lede to suck in your reader. Opening lines such as, "Where has this year gone?" or, "It's hard to believe the holidays are here again" are as fresh as that sprig of mistletoe that still hangs in your living room with spring's first buds.

My annual failures to exercise consistently, lose weight and turn over new leaves are sufficient reminders that I am careening into decrepitude and decay.

Second, always write your holiday letter in the first person. It's essential that the reader know with certainty who has perpetrated this act and who therefore deserves the blame. References that smack of martyrdom, only-in-America levels of frenzied activity and egregious self-promotion must be accurately attributed.

Men, when it falls on you to write the holiday letter I recommend that you phrase it as if it's your wife's work. She'll never notice; she's too busy buying Christmas presents for your parents, siblings and friends.

Third, readers can do without vivid and lengthy descriptions of your various maladies and surgeries. It is not in the holiday spirit to provide meticulous medical details about body parts removed, replaced or upgraded, or chronologies of hospital stays, medications required or recuperative regimens. One year I read a particularly uplifting tome whose author, over the course of four pages, went to great pains (pun intended) to educate his readers about fibromyalgia.

This precious and thoughtful holiday "gift" was as depressing as it was baffling. However, it turned cruelly comical when the writer, flush with excitement, recounted his unbridled joy at finding the perfect toilet seat to cushion one aspect of his suffering.

Fourth, make a list and check it twice before detailing your kids' accomplishments. Avoid anecdotes such as "out of 30 sixth-graders our son was selected as the most popular student in his class."

Have you forgotten that many of us know the little miscreant? He's as likeable as a hockey player in the penalty box. Just once I'd love to read something like this: "We are thankful that Bubba is out of jail. He's living with us, but he never leaves because he has one of those electronic bracelets on his ankle."

On the other hand, if your kid earned a perfect score on the SAT, was accepted to Harvard or got married, you could safely include one of these feats in your Christmas letter.

Fifth, professions of your political affiliations and opinions are inappropriate in this type of letter. Several years ago my parents received a Christmas letter that began, "Hawaiians have our first female governor, and she's a Republican! After 40 years of Democrats we look forward to much-needed changes." This was a major faux pas: Americans never mingle Christmas and politics.

Finally, it's customary to close with a promise of future hospitality for any potential visitors to the writer's home. There's a good reason this invitation always is tucked away in the last paragraph. Studies have shown that 80 percent of Christmas letter readers never make it past the second paragraph. So it would seem that this gesture has about as much authenticity as the flight of Falcon the Balloon Boy.

However, if this magnanimous offer were placed in the first paragraph, I'm certain we'd see fewer Christmas letters.

Mark Wardlaw is the director of instrumental music at Santa Rosa High School and a longtime member of the Santa Rosa Symphony. He lives in Santa Rosa and no longer sends Christmas letters.