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Getting Ready for Seasonal Celebrations: Real-Life Tips From Our Inbox

These holiday tips sent in from our readers will help you stress less during the holiday season. Get advice on staying organized, decorating the simple way and preparing a stress-free holiday feast.

The holiday season is a process to be enjoyed, and judging by these stress-free holiday tips many of you are in great shape. Top on the list is "shopping early," but some of you were creative and recommend we "don't decorate" or "leave town on vacation." Because we're gluttons for punishment — and not decorating is not an option — here are some sure-fire ways to make this holiday season relaxing.

Set Limits

First, I have intentionally limited the number of occasions we make a part of the holiday. We arrange to spend time with people once during the season. In this way, we manage to see more people with more quality time. We attend only one "non-family" party. Next, I split the holiday occasions with family: one does Christmas, the other does Thanksgiving and New Year's is private. A third member hosts the Christmas tree decorating event.

Karen Miller, Poway, Calif.

One member of my family volunteers to print return and address labels, one pastes them on the holiday cards and everyone signs their names after a family dinner one evening in the two week period after Thanksgiving. This cuts down on the amount of time it takes to get the cards out. Greeting cards are only sent to folks who live out of town or will not be seen during the holidays. For others, a card is attached to the homemade cookies or candy they receive. This cuts down on postage and adds a nice touch.

Bev Knapp and Cindy McElroy, Alexandria, Va.

We no longer exchange gifts. We buy gift items all year and have a grab bag. These have to be nice items that we can use.The teenage and older grandchildren love this and we older ones get elegant lotions, bath items and towels that we don't buy for ourselves. We also limit the number of obligations we have during the month. We celebrate on a day that everyone can make it since driving is involved. Dinner is basic with a few new dishes we like to try. This has turned into a really fun time instead of all of being so tired.

Carol Neibling, Highland, Kan.

Shop Early

After a year when I rushed around at the last minute trying to find gifts that people would like, I began shopping for the following year at the after Christmas sales. Now I shop year round and I am excited and eager to share my treasures with their recipients. For those that "have everything," we give gift certificates to their favorite restaurants or tickets to an event we know they will enjoy.

Marilyn Cinami, Canterbury, Conn.

By the time Thanksgiving is here, everything that I could get ahead of time is already bought, and I have only last minute shopping to do. We can spend the rest of the time shopping for simple fun items like stocking stuffers, a Christmas tree and the ingredients for the special desserts we make. We get to wrap gifts, decorate, send cards, bake and visit friends and family — joyfully! And isn't that how it's supposed to be? We try to never get stressed out or we would lose the true meaning of Christmas, which is love!

Dottie Wolfe, Richmond, Va.

I start shopping the week before Thanksgiving. The sales are on and everything?s in the stores, but definitely not as many people. I hate crowds. Best day to shop without a crowd is the day before Thanksgiving. Know what you?re looking for and the stores are all stocked with goods. This way if you see it on sale after Thanksgiving, some stores will give you the discounted price.

Kathleen Christy, Shelton, Conn.

Because of chronic health problems and not knowing when I'll be up and around, I start my Christmas shopping right after Christmas and continue through the year. I keep a file card in my wallet of all gifts bought for whom, and usually I'm done by the end of summer. I wrap and deliver my presents in the fall to the extended family. I'm even able to find interesting (not run of the mill) stocking gifts for my husband and children when I'm shopping during vacation trips throughout the year.This keeps my gift search leisurely and fun.

M K Colclasure, Orlando, Fla.

I start my Christmas shopping for the next year during the Christmas clearance sales right after Christmas. You can get great discounts, sometimes up to 80 percent off.

Christine Peterson, Waukesha, Wis.

Clever Timesavers

Last year, I bought an extension cord with a push button on/off switch for the Christmas tree lights. Then, at bed time all I had to do was walk over to the tree, step on the button with my foot, and the lights would all go off. No more back breaking, bending or nearly knocking the tree over! It?s hard to believe that such a simple and inexpensive item saved me so much aggravation!

Kristen Hightower, Cincinnati, Ohio

Who do you know doesn't enjoy dinner at a good restaurant? On any given payday you can stop in at any good major chain restaurant and purchase a $25 or $50 gift card and put it away in a drawer for safe keeping. Then, when Christmas rolls around and you are going over your purchases and think, "I really need one more thing for Aunt Kim and Uncle Joe," you can pull out one of those $50 gift cards and have no-stress shopping at your fingertips.

The same is true for the unexpected guest who stops by with a gift for you. ust excuse yourself to your bedroom and grab a gift card from your stash for an instant gift. The nice thing about gift cards is they come in any denomination you choose. So, you can use plain white envelopes and mark $10 on one and place the cards that you load with $10 in that envelope.

Lisa Dever, Goldsboro, N.C.

Take time to organize and label your decorations as you put them away. You will then know where to find that special decoration that you like to put up early. Buy Christmas colored containers to store the decorations in and you'll know exactly which boxes you need down from the attic without searching through various boxes. A good use for those big popcorn containers that you get at Christmas is to store decorations in them for the year as well. There?re easy to pick out when stored in the attic.

Donna Blackwelder, Madison, Ala.

Relieve some of the pressure of holiday baking by waiting to do it in January. I send my neighbors (or whoever I plan to bake for) a Christmas card letting them know they will receive their holiday goodies in January. I have found that this is always appreciated a lot more because December seems to overdose most of us with too many sweet treats.

Susan Lister, Anderson, S.C.

Prepare and Freeze Your Holiday Meal

I have started cooking for my family of 17 that will be here for Thanksgiving. There is no stress as the sweet potatoes and dressing are already in the freezer. The pecan pies will be next followed by green beans. That only leaves the turkey to cook the day of arrival and the rolls will be made out in the box ready to go in the oven. We now call it our "No Stress Meal," as we no longer try to have everyone's favorite dish. By cooking/freezing ahead of time I am not worn or stressed out.

Rosa Lee Bell, Marvell, Ark.

Holidays are for spending time with the people we care about, so have everyone bring a dish to pass, or consider catering some of your dinner and only making the traditional food everyone wants you to make. This will allow you to spend a lot more time with family and friends and not in the kitchen. Don't forget to bake with disposable aluminum pans and use plastic storage with lids for the leftovers. This will make clean-up easy and stress-free, too.

Ticia Scott, Westland, Mich.

My strategy is to gather the family and have each person choose one holiday recipe to make. I check for ingredients that are needed and get commitments on our project time. Each person is responsible for making their chosen holiday treat. We then fill tins in an assembly line style. The tins are stored in a cool location, and when anyone in the family needs a quick gift or party treat, the tins are available for a stress free holiday moment.

Rebecca van Rooyen, Overland Park, Kan.

I have discovered that many people are so loaded up on fat and sweets during December that friends always enjoy my evening menu of homemade soups (two or three choices). My guests provide the appetizers, a salad or a dessert.

Cynthia Wheaton, Terre Haute, Ind.

For friends or visitors that pop in I always have cheese and crackers on hand, veggies and a quick dip to make. Putting munchies on the table makes most people happy.

Linda Mulkern, Portland, Maine

Decorate Your Way

I use tabletop trees of various sizes in my decorating. I have each tree decorated with special ornaments, some of which I have made, some purchased over a period of years and some are gifts from friends that have special meaning to me. Because my trees are small I keep them decorated and place a large plastic wrapper over them to keep out the dust before storing them in a closet. When it's time to decorate I just bring them out of the closet, set them on the appropriate table and I'm done!

Vicki Steckbeck, Ft. Wayne, Ind.

I don't put out all of my decorations every year. First, it lessens the decorating time. Second, you make every Christmas a little different and special. For example, I have a collection of at least a dozen nativity sets, but I may only put out three in any given year. This way, each nativity is displayed in its full glory. I also have several sets of ornaments — each with a theme (i.e. cat ornaments, ornaments from travel, golf ornaments). By only using one theme a year, I keep the family guessing and create a little surprise.

Julia Kirwan, Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Now that the kids are grown and gone I have several 4-foot trees which I leave pretty much decorated before they get stored each year. Whenever it?s a hectic year or we are going out of town, I just pull out the trees and plug in the lights, and finish decorating the rest of the house. This way I have more time to bake and enjoy the season and feel the warmth of Christmas.

Karen Polian, Wichita, Kan.

I store a few different "themes" in totes. I change themes yearly, but this is still enough variety to keep it new. Past years have included rustic, snowman, iridescent, red/silver, black/silver/purple, primary colors. This way, all I have to do is decide on the theme of the year and pull out that tote. I enjoy opening a tote and finding all the little items I have added throughout the year. It is usually enough that I can decorate the tree and incorporate the theme throughout the house.

Jolene Cox, Spencer, Iowa

We have the Christmas decorations in boxes that are labeled by room, so after the tree is up, I do one room at a time during the week while the kids are at school. This helps with clutter and it?s nice to see the kids' faces when they come home from school and they see more Christmas decorations.

Pia Siegman, Northridge, Calif.

Take a Timeout

Invite a large group of friends to your house and fix your favorite brunch recipes, including lots of goodies. When everyone is done eating gather them together and hand out an agenda with directions, including cell phone numbers. You can even make banners to attach to your car window that look the same.

Head out to the first of many Holiday Bazaars scheduled for the day. Pick large organized ones, where there are master craftsman and artists. The atmosphere is very joyous from the second you walk in the door. It smells great, from evergreen wreaths to scented candles and warm delicious cider. Once there you can look and shop. After a few of these take a break at a neighborhood park and tailgate. When you?re all done — or just too tired to continue — it's time to head back with some of your friends for show and tell. You have started early, mentally and physically, to a less stressful season.

Joyce Renner, Lake Oswego, Ore.

There never seems to be enough time to do everything or see everyone. My girlfriends and I get together to bake cookies one afternoon, with all our kids playing around us, and then one night we get together again and do a cookie exchange and potluck dinner! We do it early enough in the month of December that our evenings aren't already booked solid. It's so much fun!

Lynda Cavanagh, Clearwater, Fla.

I take a weeks vacation about the second week of December. If I have someone to vacation with, I go to Leavenworth, Wash.. It's like a snowy Bavarian village all lit up for Christmas. You can do all types snow sports there or nearby. Or, as I do, you can shop and find good food. If I don't have someone to vacation with, I start baking my Christmas cookies.


Do It All From Your Desk

I catalog or online shop and have the gifts shipped directly to my out of town family and friends. That keeps me from having to fight the crowds by shipping them myself.

Patty Akers, Casselberry, Fla.

I make a computerized Christmas list each year and check off items as I get them. I also start next year's list during the current Christmas season. It helps me remember who and what we gave last year including how much. The list for next year is especially helpful during the after Christmas sales. I also note where I stored the gifts so that I can find them. During the year, when I think of something that someone would really like, I put it on the list. Come Christmas time, I open up the list and half my shopping is already done and a lot of the rest I can do online.

Another helpful hint is to use the calendar you buy at the end of the year for next year. I put a PostIt on December of next year noting what I do or definitely do not need for next year. Something like: "Have plenty of bags, need bows." That way when I see darling Christmas bags before I've started wrapping my gifts, I don't buy them, but when I see beautiful bows, I will.

Teri Davena, Benicia, Calif.

We order online early and have packages mailed to where we are going to spend the holiday. We adults have a "Wrap Party" when the kids are in bed. This saves us the hassle of loading things in the car. We can also take advantage of online sales and free shipping and the kids have nothing to peek into.

Melissa Szeliga, Mt. Airy, Md.

Get Organized

This is the way I beat the stress of the holidays: I line up dates with events.This also helps with budget planning! (There is no going in debt when you start planning at the beginning of September.)

September 1 — Start Christmas shopping and wrap as I go
October 1 — Continue Christmas shopping and begin the "watch" for additional Christmas decorations
October 15 — Decorate for fall
November 1 — Finish bulk Christmas shopping and begin search for "trinket," "exchange" and stocking stuffer gifts
November 17 — Pick up items needed for Thanksgiving dinner
November 24 — Take time to relax with family for Thanksgiving (knowing the rush will be on for Christmas, I am cool as a cucumber)
December 1 — Decorate the house
December 3 — Make lists for baking and sending out Christmas cards
December 11 — Mail Christmas cards and pick up baking items
December 16 — Buy a tree and decorate it
December 18 — Have fun baking
December 24 — Sit by the fire after stuffing the stockings
December 25 — Open gifts and reap the reward of the (almost) past four months

Carol, Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Start now, don't put off your planning. Make lists and stick to them. Don't get caught up in all the magazines' suggestions about home-making all the goodies or decorating extravagantly. Know when to stop. Defend yourself against the "shoulds" and "oughts" and the guilt trips by going back to your lists and checking things off one by one.

Diane, Loogootee, Ind.

The tree goes up day after Thanksgiving. Shopping is started in September and finished the first of December. The Christmas dinner is started seven days prior to Christmas. I pick out each course that can be prepared or partial prepared ahead, so I only have final preparation the day of Christmas.

Winifred Brown, Hamilton Square, N.J.

Keep a little notebook packed away with your Christmas decorations each year, where you write down what gifts you got for all those on your list. You can review it each season as you get your decorations out. That way Aunt Jane won't get a pair of gloves two years (or more) in row! (Especially good for those of us who can't remember from year to year.)

Judy Martin, Flippin, Ark.

I buy an extra large roll of wrapping paper and wrap as I buy or make presents. Each year is all one color scheme. I also set up an area for wrapping. I use a kitchen size waste paper bin for rolls of wrapping paper, an upright plastic four-drawer unit for ribbons, bows, small boxes, tapes etc. and keep it in one area (near a table or flat top space).

Kathleen Martin, Dunedin, Fla.

Keep it in Perspective

My family and my husband's family have every thing as far as Christmas gifts, so I decided to donate to St. Jude Children's Hospital as a gift to our families in honor of them. I can do it by computer and I make them feel good along with helping children who need the gift much more than our family. I feel that everyone should be giving to a charity in lieu of gifts.

Irene Town, Woodstock, Ga.

If it doesn't bring me or someone else joy, I don't do it.

Cherie, Mt. Shasta, Calif.

I have a large family that my husband and I host for the Christmas holiday. We found a couple years ago that it was getting overwhelming to do a gift exchange. We also felt the kids were losing track of what the holiday was really about and just getting into the present frenzy. We decided to change the focus and minimize the gifts.

Adults now give each couple a small homemade gift item (usually the same for each couple, just personalized). No wrong sizes and no returns! For the kids we do a name exchange with a limit. Now the kids get one really nice thing to enjoy and the gift giving is much quicker, leaving us time to have the kids decorate cookies and do a craft project. The best project was having them decorate a picture frame and taking a group photo for each child to put in their frame.

Liz Southwick, Cincinnati, Ohio

When it comes time for shopping during the holidays, it can be very stressful with all the large crowds. I always go into it with an open heart and a quick smile. Cashiers and other shoppers seem much more pleasant if you can be a little patient, smile and say excuse me.

Trudi Corn, Sublette, Kan.

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