At this point, the later holiday cards are trickling in, and this could go on for some weeks (or even months, if other families are anything like ours). The key is to remember that whenever they arrive, they are magic.

Oh, sure, there are some on which the whole family -- dog included -- looks as if they were tasered. And some on which one of the kids looks as if he thinks the incredible gift he is giving his parents is his presence at the photo session, time he clearly would prefer to spend submerged in sewage.

And yes, there are also those mass-mailed notes wherein we find out, oh, your son won first place in the Smartest Kid in the World contest? Your daughter just got picked to be Princess of the Universe, to whom all must bow because no one is as talented and cute as she? It is to gag. If I were more creative, I'd make those cards into -- I don't know; is there such a thing as a liver box? A box that holds only liver? That.

But for the most part, even a cynical old soul like me has to admit, the cards keep us connected in ways that almost defy time and space.

"Last night, I got a phone call from a guy I hadn't talked to in five years, because he'd received the card with the picture, and he said, 'I can't believe how big the kids are!' And we talked for an hour and a half," says Thom Singer, a corporate trainer in Austin, Texas. Like millions of Americans, Singer sends out his cards every year. And like millions of social media posts -- only actually social -- those cards tell his friends that he still cares about them, cares enough to send a real-world card.

"People always make fun of those letters," says Karon Gibson, a cable TV personality outside of Chicago. But Christmas letters are a lot like Christmas fruitcake. The bad ones are terrible, but the good ones -- they're delicious. They fill you up with another year's worth of a family's life, and that can mean the difference between shedding those friends and staying satisfyingly in touch. Recently, Gibson reconnected with a friend from 40 years ago who had sent her a card, and now she and two other former colleagues -- they were nurses together -- are having dinner.

The thing seems to be that if you send a card, it is really a way of saying, "I'm sorry I don't think about you every day -- and you probably don't think about me -- but that doesn't mean you weren't an important part of my life at one time. And I'd like to keep you in it."

For me, I used to get a letter every year -- a funny one -- from a high-school friend. I'd moved to New York; she'd stayed in suburban Chicago. But darned if her voice didn't come through, even as she was talking about kids of hers I never had met and a husband I couldn't pick out of a lineup.

After, oh, a mere decade or so of savoring these notes and finally getting into the game by sending cards myself (it took me a long time to warm to this tradition), I called her up and said, "Let's see each other!"

That was a few years ago, and I'm so glad we are back to being friends. It's like bringing a corner of the garden back to life. All it took was a yearly sprinkle of seasonal spirit.

So even if you haven't sent your greetings out yet, it's not too late. In fact, the real secret is that it's never too late.