When the ironing board goes up and Mom encourages all family members to bring her their tired and poor wrinkled clothing, the family knows it's the day The Picture will be taken.
Unless, of course, they already intuited said event from the hastily scheduled haircut appointments of the previous week.
The annual picture-taking session has been a ritual in our house for 10 years and it is the one day all four of us must look absolutely perfect, simultaneously, because this picture will be sent, enclosed in Christmas cards, all across the United States to relatives and high school and college friends--all of whom I want to impress.
The early years were easier because I could choose the outfits my sons would wear without any interference from the participants.
But as my sons got older the day was marred by such comments as, "You're not going to wear that shirt, are you?" and, "When is the last time you washed your hair?" and, "No, you can't wear your punk rock sunglasses in the picture."
One year my younger son, 16, told me, "If you make me get a haircut before the picture, it'll be a Mohawk."
Once all four of us are more or less well groomed, a feat accomplished only by my crabby and constant vigilance, we need someone to capture this moment on film.
Over the years, we've exhausted the small group of friends we have dared ask to snap our picture. Friends imposed upon in the past stop speaking to us at this time of year, so irritated were they at coming over to what was billed as a half-hour session, only to spend half the day while we traipse around our suburban yard trying to find a place to be photographed.
Actually, no matter where the picture is taken, one of us (usually a child) refuses to smile. One picture-taking friend, who shot us two years in a row, brought her son along with his complete collection of zany puppets to correct the smile problem. He was to make us relax with his antics, allowing us to avoid our usual demeanor, which suggests we're filming a hemorrhoid commercial.
Alas, it didn't work. While he cavorted with his puppets and made horns behind his mother's head while she focused the camera, we stared straight ahead muttering through rigid lips, "Stand up straight," "Don't fool with your hair," "What do you mean, my lipstick is too dark," and, "You're leaning on me, stupid."
Because of our seasonal shortage of friends, some years we have been reduced to our own devices--tripods and timers and such.
My husband lines us up against a wall, aims the camera, pulls a lever and rushes over to join us. Unfortunately, he never quite makes it and his hurried presence in those pictures lends a certain rakish and unwelcome tilt to the proceedings.
One year we bought a long black tube with a squeeze bulb. My husband promised he could arrange himself in a more orderly fashion in the picture with the black bulb in his hand and the other end attached to the camera.
There was one drawback: Although he tried holding the black bulb discreetly behind him, several relatives called to ask why he'd taken to carrying around a piece of rubber hose.
Fortunately, this year, we made some new friends. They agreed, cheerfully, to come over and take our picture. Everything went smoothly. After 10 years we are all eager to get it over with.
Once the session is over, the most difficult part comes when we have to choose the best picture from the 36 shots, one in which all four of us look reasonably intelligent and sane. But no matter which picture we decide on, there is always one family member who swears it is the worst picture ever taken of him or her, and threatens to boycott next year's proceedings.
But I admit I love these holiday rituals. They prevent me from plunging into that holiday depression one hears so much about.
For while I may act crazy and crabby, at least I'm not depressed.
So smile, everybody, or live to regret it.