When was the last time you had a really relaxing holiday? I don't mean that peaceful thirty-minute aftermath that follows a successful dinner party or the kids' gift-opening extravaganza. I mean a holiday that is relaxing, from beginning to end. That includes travel, dinner preparations, and shopping. All it will take is a little organization and advance planning. Here are some tips to get you started.
Plan your travel now. Need to be out of town to see family or friends? If you haven't already made arrangements, make it a priority. Especially if you plan to fly, the best deals disappear fast. Get online and start shopping around as soon as you know where you need to be and when. Once the arrangements are made, start getting things squared away with work. Whether you need to request time off, reschedule a recurring meeting, or just let your employees know that you'll be gone, do it as soon as possible. Depending on where you work, getting holiday time off can be competitive. Especially in this case, the early bird tends to get the worm.
Make a budget. Unless you've got more money that you know what to do with, it is easy for the holiday season to turn into a financial headache. Ninety-nine percent of that stress can be eliminated by thinking ahead and making a budget. Financial sanity doesn't come from having a ton of money; it comes from spending it wisely.
Decide how much you're going to spend and stick to it. Letting yourself creep over your budget probably isn't going to make you a hero in the gift department, but it might cost you a gray hair or two when it comes time to sort out the holiday bills. How many times have you charged expensive items and spent five months paying for them? See if you can break tradition this year by drawing names or just sending cards. Tell the people you're not buying for that you've pared down your gift list out of necessity and ask them not to buy for you as well.
Avoid the shopping marathon. Unless you really do enjoy the "shop 'till you drop" marathon mall sessions, skip the all-day shopping trips. If you start now (or better yet, six months ago), you'll be amazed at how much you can get done by picking up an item here and there while you're running your everyday errands. The secret is to sit down, make a list of the people you need to shop for, and keep it with you.
Ideally, your list will include one or two gift options for each person, too. Keep your list with you and cross off a few people every week. Also keep your eye out for stocking stuffers and similar small items. And as for that whole Black Friday thing - if you don't enjoy it, skip it! Unless shopping is in your blood, the money you'll save probably isn't worth the aggravation.
Wrap as you go. Don't put all of your wrapping off until the last minute. As you pick things up, go ahead and wrap them as soon as you get a chance. Wrap a couple extras for a guest who shows up unexpectedly and gives you a gift. It helps to have a dedicated wrapping area cornered off that is well-stocked with all the essentials - wrapping paper, scissors, gift tags, tape, etc. The easier you make it for yourself, the more likely you are to get it done.
Simplify, simplify. No matter how cool your friends and family might play it, you are NOT the only one who gets stressed out around the holidays. If the stress of preparations is getting out of hand, don't be afraid to propose a simplified pot-luck dinner instead of a more elaborate affair or a gift exchange instead of shopping for everyone individually. Even if you just try this approach with a small group of friends or extended family, it'll be at least a small relief for everyone involved. When it comes to reducing your holiday workload, every little bit helps.
Make friends with the Internet. More and more shoppers are finally taking the plunge and skipping the traditional brick and mortar stores completely. Internet shopping has come a long way in the last few years and you might be surprised at how simple it has gotten. You can easily compare prices and can generally find good deals on shipping that will guarantee arrival in plenty of time for the big day.
Play your cards right. Many people take one look at that mound of Christmas cards and can suddenly think of three or four other things that require their immediate attention. We love getting cards but hate the prospect of doing ours. So we procrastinate until December 22 and pull another 2 a.m. shift to get them in the mail by Christmas. So, I look at my cards as a process. Breaking the project down into smaller pieces makes it seem more manageable. You can even begin now! The first thing I do is create the labels.
Second, I stick them on the envelopes with a return address label and stamp. Next, I write the family newsletter and get it copied onto the special paper. Finally, I set up an assembly line: (a) add a salutation to the card such as "Dearest X Family," (b) sign our names, (c) enclose the newsletter and a picture, and (d) seal the envelope with a sticker. No licking for me! If you prefer to hand-write your cards, the trick is to write five each day, starting the day after Thanksgiving. Take some with you wherever you go, in case you find some free time: at the doctor's office, waiting for a meeting to begin, or picking your child up from a lesson.
Cheat. Unless you really enjoy preparing mass quantities of food from scratch, there's no reason not to take advantage of a short-cut or two. Particularly when it comes to the dessert menu, there are plenty of quick and easy mixes that can help you shave some serious time off of your meal preparation schedule. Just go to the grocery store and find a few easy-to-make offerings or buy something from the deli. For a special touch you can dress your desserts with extra holiday sprinkles or a squiggle of chocolate sauce across the plate for a very restaurant-looking presentation.
Give yourself the gift of time. How about purchasing a few months of housekeeping instead of clothes? Purchase a gift certificate to a restaurant so you don't have to cook. Have the veterinarian groom your dog instead of doing it yourself, being soaked, and making a mess. Buy a book on tape to listen to in the car on the way to work. Purchase a cell phone and eliminate phone tag by forwarding your calls when you leave the office. Have your groceries delivered once a week for a month (less than the cost of a blouse). Hire a teenager to do the major cleaning required before houseguests arrive.
Remember your priorities. Take shortcuts where it really doesn't matter: buy cookies instead of baking them or barter a task you don't like for one you do. I know two women who trade chores at holiday time. One hates to bake; the other hates to do crafts. So one woman decorates the other's home and wraps her presents beautifully; the other does the meal preparation and holiday baking for the other! Cut out as many social engagements as possible if you want more family time-you can't go to a school musical when it's more convenient. Kids appreciate happy and relaxed parents more than perfect decorations.
Get moving! However you choose to get a head start on the holiday season, you won't regret putting in the extra effort early on. Keep yourself motivated by thinking about how nice it will be to cruise through the end of December stress-free and full of holiday spirit. You might make a date with yourself to visit the mall on the last weekend before Christmas-just so you can observe the mayhem you successfully avoided by being so productive!