Experts share their best advice on how to enjoy a stress-free holiday season.
As festive and joyous as the holidays are, preparing for the brightest season of the year can drive us up the wall. We often feel more than our fair share of pressure. We have to find the "right" gift for a long list of loved ones, decorate as grand (if not grander) than our neighbors, and throw the greatest dinner ever.
Breathe. You don't have to do any of this. It's possible to enjoy the holidays without giving yourself a migraine. Our seasonal experts offer their top tips for helping you celebrate the season with a minimum of stress.
Pick one piece as the focal point, then decorate around it.
If it were just about the tree, Christmas decorating would be a snap. But if you're like a lot of holiday hosts, you long for a house that looks worthy of a glossy cover on the latest home magazine – but without the sweat and tears.
Julieann Covino, founder of Jace Interiors, says your ultimate priority should be not to overdo it. "In each room have one decorated focal point, whether it be the fireplace in the living room, dining table or foyer," she says. "Every inch of the room does not need to be visually overloaded."
Create a theme to keep you focused and less stressed, Covino adds. It's quicker and easier to pull together a room if you have a theme such as snowflakes, a color or a particular atmosphere (for example, rustic or modern).
Lastly, pull out your calendar and pick a decorating day. "Put on festive music, light some holiday scented candles and actually enjoy the process," Covino says. "You will be happier with the one day than trying to do a little at a time."
Need a few easy, breezy decorating ideas?
"These are quick and stress-free decorating tips that will have all of your guests talking," Covino says.
Choose one dish you do well.
It's your turn to host the holiday celebration. In years past, you've nearly pulled out every hair follicle trying to put the pieces together—but this year is going to be different.
"Take care of your stress by not putting the pressure on yourself," says Bethany Boles, an event designer in Savannah, Ga.
For dinner, she recommends picking what she calls "the confidence booster"— a dish you cook so well that it's a sure hit with your guests. "If it's something simple your family loves, select it," Boles says.
Base everything else around that one entrée. Get creative with presentation. Take a page from trendy restaurants by serving sushi in a martini glass or dessert in wine goblets.
Think ahead. What can you prepare the day before? "Roasted vegetables work for any holiday and you can make them the day before." Refrigerate the vegetables overnight and warm them for five minutes the day of your dinner, she says.
Plan your beverages in the same manner. Try to please everyone, and you may end up with three different cases of beer the next day. Instead, select one alcoholic beverage – maybe a holiday concoction – and a wine with a water option, Boles says.
With dinner décor, Boles advises to go for simple elegance.
"Using a stemmed glass creates a stunning table, without forcing you to have an elaborate first course to get the wow effect as guests are seated." Remember the emotional spirit of your affair. "If your heart is in it, it will be the best experience you and your guests have."
Host one big open house instead of lots of smaller events.
So you can't quite afford to host the big, holiday shindig you want? Etiquette expert Lesley Carlin says it's quite acceptable to have a buffet-style, open house.
"Open houses are much less stressful for both hosts and guests," she says. "And you won't have to sweat it if a friend brings a few extra people (though, that in itself is not polite)."
Keep it simple with finger foods and appetizers. Better yet, make it a dessert party, she suggests. "Have people over for holiday pastries and coffee," Carlin says. "The treats can come from your local bakery, but do hide the boxes!"
The gift-giving department can be a bit trickier. What if your friends want to swap presents with you, but they weren't exactly in your budget? Be creative. Think one gift to share with many, such as homemade goodies.
"A nice box of homemade cookies is very thoughtful," Carlin says. "Make a big batch, divide them up, and put them in small, decorative bags. That way, you can take care of several friends at the same time."
In the event that you've got plenty of cash to spend, don't go overboard with buying expensive gifts, especially in an office environment. "When everyone else is exchanging candy and books and candles, your presenting someone with an iPod will not make you look generous — it'll make you look silly."
Shop online, when it's convenient for you.
Packed parking lots, long lines, crowded malls, and higher blood pressure – is this what you want? This year, opt for a calmer, gentler shopping experience. Grab your slippers, a warm cup of apple cider and turn on the computer.
"Go online," says Helen Malani, who monitors online shopping trends and patterns. "Once you get there, you can shop on your own time." Consumers have been conditioned to shop during shopping hours, instead of controlling their shopping lives, she adds.
Today's more sophisticated web sites, such as Nordstrom.com, allow shoppers to chat live with designer and beauty specialists, or a customer representative, as if you were in the store. Take advantage of a vast array of online shops and see who's dangling the best price tags. Save yourself time, Malani says, by shopping on all-in-one sites such as shopzilla.com, where you can comparison-shop among top retailers, calculate shipping costs and purchase on the spot.
But if you're nostalgic for the traditional, holiday shopping scene, Malani suggests surfing the Internet before you head out to avoid visiting too many stores. Use the Web as an information source to prepare yourself. "Lock down the price of the item in your budget, then go to the store, to touch it and feel it," she says.
Malani's best tip? Get started early. Don't cool your heels for Black Friday – the first, and most chaotic, day of the holiday shopping season. Merchants use the day after Thanksgiving to lure you in with good deals. Look around for early-bird specials.
Select seasonal items for can't-miss gifts.
Santa's got his work cut out for him. But at least the jolly guy gets a list to work from. Sometimes you just don't know what to choose from the vast array of options, and that's when the insanity begins.
First things first, "be organized," gift guru Susan Hook says. "There is nothing worse than wandering aimlessly through the mall or perusing a website in the eleventh hour without a clue about what gifts you want to buy." Before you begin the hunt, sit down and make a list that includes who you're shopping for, what you think each might want, their interests and hobbies and stores you know they frequent, she adds.
If you're absolutely clueless, sift through holiday catalogs for creative ideas. Don't ignore the obvious. If you think a fitness buff wouldn't love a new exercise outfit or gadget, you're probably wrong. Music lover friends may not have the latest CD. For the person who volunteers his/her time to a specific charity, Hook suggests gifts that give back.
"Many companies are offering products where a portion of proceeds are donated to a charity," she says. "This is a great way to make your recipient feel even more special about the gift they receive."
But for gifts that can't miss, pick up fun, seasonal items that can be used during the festivities. "Holiday décor is a great way to go," Hook says. "Festive candles, a set of holiday-themed guest towels or monogrammed guest soaps make great hostess gifts. Also, consider a colorful set of tumblers for serving their special eggnog recipe or giving yummy gourmet treats that they can share with visitors."