Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Simplify the Holidays -- Part I

Last Saturday, in preparation for our family's early Christmas celebration while our son and daughter-in-law were here from Chicago, my husband and I put up our tree. Sounds simple, right? Take the tree out of the box, assemble the trunk and branches, add lights, garland, and decorations. Voila! Well, not quite. Last Saturday was a really bad pain day for me, so I had to keep sitting down. It took five hours to get the tree up and decorated! Once the tree was done, I was done in, and there was no way I was going to be able to put up the window lights or the garland along the post and railing on our staircase. Amid my lamenting the inability to do things the way I used to, my husband, who is part Santa Claus and part wiseman, said, "Next year, let's get a smaller tree and downsize our decorating." We decided that if that's what it takes to keep our "ho, ho, ho" from turning into "bah, humbug," so be it.

There are many reasons why the holidays can be overwhelming. Perhaps you, too, live with the challenges of chronic pain and illness, or you're getting older and just don't have the energy anymore, or perhaps you're juggling a family and a full-time job, and your hands are too full to take on the added responsibilities and stresses of providing a "fun, old-fashioned family Christmas" like Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." We remember how much fun the holidays were when we were kids, but now it just seems like too much work. So, how can we preserve the enjoyment while cutting back on the stress? See if some of these suggestions might help.

1. Bake ahead and freeze. Many cookie, candy, and cake recipes can be made ahead of time, baked, and stored in the freezer. Fruit pies can be put together and frozen, unbaked, then put in the oven when you're ready to use them. For added fun, get a couple of friends together for a group "bake-in," where each of you bakes extra, then divide up the goodies so everyone gets to take home several ready-to-eat-or-reheat items. And if baking is just too much for you, buy special holiday treats from the store or local bakery.

2. Plan ahead. Pick up Christmas gifts throughout the year to take advantage of sales. By buying a little at a time, purchases will have less impact on the checkbook and you'll save yourself the last minute hassle of dealing with crowded stores, long checkout lines, and traffic snarls. And you'll also avoid the post-holiday credit card statement shock.

3. Shop online. Many brick-and-mortar stores have an online presence in addition to those that are strictly virtual stores. Most now have secure websites to protect your personal information so you can feel confident using credit cards online. No need to brave inclement weather, deal with crowds, etc. Just shop, make your choices, and click, and your purchases will be delivered right to your door. You may find that many of your local stores are also online, so you can still "buy local."

4. Divide and conquer. If your adult children or friends are coming to your house for holiday dinner, divide up the menu and ask everyone to bring something to share. Take turns from year-to-year hosting the dinner, and ask family and friends to pitch in with preparation and clean-up chores.

5. Simplify the tree. If decorating a big tree is too much for you, downsize to a tabletop tree. And if the care and mess of a real tree is stressing you out, get an artificial one. Perhaps the fussiest part of tree decorating is getting the lights on it. Why not buy a pre-lighted, artificial tree? You can get them in various sizes, with a choice of white or colored lights, and they look nice once you've added your personal touches. This also avoids the mess of shed needles all over the house when you cart the tree outside after the holidays. And, it can save you money in the long run because artificial trees can be stored and reused for many years to come.

6. Downsize the decorations. If a smaller tree won't hold all your decorations, hang some from garlands or lights strung along staircases, around windows, along the edge of the ceiling, or from cupboard knobs--anywhere you can see and enjoy them. Rotate groups of decorations from year to year, or cut back on by giving some of your treasured keepsake ornaments to your adult children for their trees.

7. Draw names. As families grow, it gets more expensive and harder to know what to get for people. Instead of buying for everyone, draw names. There will still be packages under the tree, but there won't be the guilt of having overspent, or the risk of getting people something they neither want nor need. Or, if you prefer to give to everyone, agree to limit the dollar amount of the gifts or give homemade ones.

8. Think outside the box. Make a donation in someone's name to their favorite charity, and place an announcement of your gift under the tree. Give gift coupons for services you are willing to perform: cleaning their attic, basement, or garage; painting a room; helping to clear out clutter; catering one or more meals; babysitting; etc. "Adopt" an animal in their name to support wildlife, such as the program run by Defenders of Wildlife, or make a donation in their name to the local Humane Society.

Watch for more ideas Friday.

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