The secret to life is that there is no secret. In heaven they ask you to explain all the times you missed an opportunity to find joy.
There is, however, a secret to surviving the holidays, although it has very little to do with heavenly matters.
It has to do with avoiding five types of people who suck joy out of a room the way air gets sucked out of a pressurized cabin in "Snakes on a Plane." You need to protect yourself when you're near these people; they are seasonal vampires.
They don't come out after dark, they come out after Black Friday. They drain dry life's emotional balance until all that's left are dregs of good cheer and a bunch of cranky crumbs.
Let's identify them so that we're safe this season.
Type 1: The Vain Man. There are now guys asking, "Does this Santa suit make me look fat?" They're asking for hair plugs and eye lifts from Santa. These guys are trying to pick up cute elves. They think they don't need Santa's bifocals to read gift lists. They think they are the prize. They are wrong.
Type 2: The Sentimental Lady. A woman who makes her daughter's ice skates into earrings is a woman who needs to unclasp her fist from the throat of The Ghost of Christmas Past. This is a person who launches into speeches about how happy her family was before the: a) divorce; b) complete failure of the culture to value important traditions such as the lighting of multiple scented candles to eclipse the smell of expired potpourri; c) her children's marriages to heathens, foreigners or people whose families refuse to acknowledge that, because they selfishly choose to live out of state, they have no right to claim time with the little ones between Halloween and Arbor Day.
Type 3: The Nut Avoider. Don't write letters to the editor. I'm not talking about you - or, at least, about only you. I have allergies and half my family is vegan, so I know what it's like to make compromises. At any gathering in my home, there are peanut-avoiders, meat-avoiders, salt-avoiders, alcohol-avoiders, fructose-avoiders, gluten-avoiders and dairy-avoiders. But anybody with a sanctimonious inability to be within spitting distance of those who mate and vote - let alone eat and drink - differently from themselves should not expect to sit at the table with others unless they compromise. I have profound physical reactions during meals that I must contain. I cannot, for example, sit next to someone who brings an electronic device to a table without moving my arms so wildly that the device smashes to the floor. If I can manage, so can the vegan sodium-free Wiccan friend who's cozied up to the Pentecostal bacon lover. No, they cannot use their electronic devices to play games in order to bond.
Type 4: The Terrifyingly Happy. These folks send cards with pictures of their adorable offspring but without supplying either a return address or their own identities, thereby remaining as anonymous as those under witness protection. These are the families who name their kids after household objects or Norse gods. Their cards read "Happy Holidays from All of Us! Here are the kids - Ooegrd, Kickstand, Beret and baby Nimmermehr!" You have no idea who they are. However, such families are usually fully occupied by taking pictures of each other. The danger of seeing them in the flesh is low.
Type 5: The Competitive Do-Gooder. This person wields every random act of kindness as a bludgeon. If you mention you donated canned goods to the soup kitchen, she'll explain how last year she made and served stew. If you boast about giving money to the local animal shelter, she'll trot out her two three-legged dogs and her deaf ferret. So you end up putting the soup kitchen and shelter in your will. You then discover she's already done that. Ha, ha! You lose!
Yet because everybody else wins, it's not real defeat.
What you found instead is an opportunity for joy. Laughter brings us a little closer to heaven - or, at the very least, closer to each other. And that's what the holidays are for, after all.
Gina Barreca is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.