How Do You Take the Stress Out of Holiday Entertaining?

Readers share tips that will lower your stress and lift your spirits.

Every year, my sister and I host our own Thanksgiving dinner, the antithesis of those we dreaded as children. At our party, guests can arrive when they like, leave when they like, bring what and whomever they like, and wear whatever they like. We provide the entrée and the beverages, the guests bring the rest, and everybody is happy―we’re all doing exactly what we want to be doing on Thanksgiving.
Yiannis Psaroudis
New York, New York

I put together “working play” parties. Depending upon the needs of the group, we might bake cookies or wrap presents together. It’s festive, fun, and low-key.
Wendy Ferguson
Portland, Oregon

No one arrives without something for the meal. Dessert, side dishes, homemade bread, vegetables―you name it, someone has brought it. Because everyone helps, we end up spending time together rather than worrying about who has to do what.
Patricia Grausam
Perth Amboy, New Jersey

For holiday cocktail parties and buffets, I hire a bartender. I can make the food and decorate in advance, so it’s not worth getting a caterer or a florist, but having help at the party is invaluable. A good bartender will not only serve drinks but also help replenish platters and stay for cleanup, so I can feel like a guest at my own party.
Phaedra Hise
Richmond, Virginia

Since my husband and I are both vegetarians, much of the holiday stress involves one of our mothers or grandmothers worrying about what to feed us. Starting in mid-October, I make up batches of our favorite vegetable casseroles. That way, I can always offer to bring along “a really fun vegetarian dish for everyone to try."
Ariella Rogge
Florissant, Colorado

The hardest guests to impress are my parents and my in-laws. So I ask my mother and my mother-in-law to each contribute a dish at our festive meal. By the end of the evening, they have received many compliments on their cooking, and they leave feeling the event was an absolute success.
Selena Heng
Singapore

Holiday entertaining should be fun. If children are included in the party, I set out plain sugar cookies with lots of decorations―frosting, brightly colored sugars, sprinkles, crushed candy canes―and let them have free rein. Later on, we serve the cookies for dessert and send some home with the party guests as well. It’s not much effort, and it makes things fun for everybody.
Christina Berreth
Bainbridge Island, Washington

I always hire someone from a cleaning service. She gets to my party early and stays until after dinner. She tidies up the kitchen, picks up after guests, and washes and puts away all the dishes. It costs me roughly $60 to $70 per event―a small price to pay to have a good time without worrying about the mess.
Tania Nordstrom
Northridge, California
 
I don’t make a big to-do during the season. Call me antisocial, but I just relish the time spent with my nuclear family. When things settle down from the business of life, it’s great to have some time with the people who mean the most to you.
Dielle Courtright
Hurricane, West Virginia

I hope that all the guests at our get-togethers will be forgiving when the napkins don’t match or if they are asked to help pour the wine. I hope that people come because they enjoy us, our friends, and our family, not because they are expecting the house to be perfect (since it never is). Assuming that our guests appreciate the invitation―and that they will accept us and our messy house―takes a great deal of the stress out of entertaining.
Shirley Lepore
Warren, Rhode Island

I remove stress by removing “should” from the holidays. Each year, I decide what feels most appropriate to me, given the time and the energy I have available: time with family, time alone, casual parties, or an elaborate dinner. That way, each year’s celebration is an expression of my true holiday spirit, not simply an obligation to get through.
Karen Minor
Alameda, California

After our first child was born, we knew that we wanted to minimize the stress involved in traveling to various holiday celebrations. So we decided that we would always stay home on Christmas Day. All the members of our extended family have a standing invitation to Christmas dinner at our house, and they know our kids are likely to show up to the meal in their pajamas. This casualness relieves some of the pressure of serving a big holiday meal. Plus, the kids have a wonderful, leisurely day, and everyone can share in their joy.
Amy Jones
Farmington, Michigan

When all the holiday chaos gets to be too much, I sit down with my children to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. I get lost in the beautiful background artwork, and I dance to Schroeder’s piano. By the time the gang sings “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” at the end, I’m calm again. The show is a reminder of what the holidays are really about.
Sarah Eddenden
Brooklin, Ontario
 
I don’t entertain during the holidays. Who says a year’s worth of entertaining has to take place in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas? I wait until after the New Year, when all the holiday hype is over. My husband and my children like to host a get-together with friends and family on the 12th day of Christmas (January 6) or on a weekend evening close to that date. We’re far more relaxed by then, and so are our guests.
Sallie Cross
Williamsburg, Virginia

After once having five different Thanksgiving dinners in one day at various relatives’ houses, I decided to cut down on the driving and the stress. I invite all the relatives to our house on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Everyone brings leftovers, and we give thanks. It really helps all of us have our own Thanksgiving and eat it, too.
Sherri Reusche
Valley Springs, California

Our family has made it a tradition to have our Christmas Eve dinner catered. Each year, a different family member gets to create the menu. And there’s no messy kitchen to clean up, which means more time to relax with loved ones.
Tracey Carman
Center, Missouri

My husband and I live far from our extended families, and we rarely get much time off for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. A few years ago, we created the Annual Galan Family Thanksgiving Movieganza with his brother and sister. We buy tickets to at least four movies, gorge ourselves on popcorn and candy, then head home at dinnertime for the best part of Thanksgiving: deli-turkey sandwiches with all the trimmings on top. Afterward, we head back out for one final movie, followed by pie. It’s not traditional, but it is the most fun we have ever had on the holiday.
Jennifer Galan
El Paso, Texas

As an interfaith family, we have to balance our celebrations, so we share. My husband’s family does Christmas morning and Christmas dinner. My parents do a Hanukkah celebration, and then my husband and I do the Eves―New Year’s. It works out great, and we connect the gatherings by each contributing desserts to the others.
Heidi Sturm
Canoga Park, California

Every year, the same 30 to 40 people―my family, our extended family members, and our friends―get together at a Florida beach for Thanksgiving. It’s beautiful there in November, and nobody has to break out the china or clean the house. Everyone brings a dish, and we enjoy a low-stress day communing with one another and nature instead of with ovens and name cards. Aunt Joanne arrives with her infamous “sex cake”―white cake with pineapple and pudding filling, topped with whipped cream―and sometimes somebody even brings a turkey.
Monica Kennedy
Sarasota, Florida

I create a Christmas notebook with spreadsheets. It includes names organized by family; whether each gift has been bought yet; and if so, where it was purchased, the cost, and whether it has been wrapped and given.
Kerry Uchtorff
Bloomington, Illinois

Having grown up with a mother who was a holiday martyr, I make enjoying myself the first priority. It’s no fun for anyone when the hostess is fuming resentfully in the kitchen while everyone else is sipping eggnog. By planning ahead, doing a little less, and enlisting the help of the kids, I get to put my feet up and enjoy the festivities, too.
Gini Hartzmark
Chicago, Illinois

I start my holiday baking in October. I freeze portions in containers that I plan to give as gifts, then put what I will serve to holiday guests in freezer bags, making sure to label and date all the items. I also start decorating the day after Thanksgiving. Just a little bit each day ensures that by the first week of December, my house looks like it’s ready for anything.
Kathryn Nesmeyer
Jefferson City, Missouri


 
Holiday stress doesn’t exist for me. Since I lost my son in Iraq last year, the house could burn down, and all that would count would be that my husband and remaining children and I were together. My loss has put the rest of my life in perspective.
Aggie Cohen
York, Pennsylvania

I lived in a foreign country for 18 years, and it was always difficult being 8,000 miles from home during the holidays. Now that we’ve moved back to the United States, we have Thanksgiving at my house every year, and I thank my lucky stars that we’re home, surrounded by the people I love. I revel in the noise, the clutter, the chaos, and the outbursts of laughter.
Sonja Scharles
Charlotte Hall, Maryland

I focus on my senses and the uniqueness of the special, once-a-year pleasures: the smell of the food and of the Christmas tree; the sight of all the holiday decorations and of long unseen family and friends at the front door; the taste of seasonal treats, like eggnog and rum balls; getting a kiss under the mistletoe; listening to the carols that I’ve heard since I was a young child. And if I find myself getting a little bit unraveled, I just stand outside for a few minutes, breathing in the cool winter air and remembering that this will end all too soon―and that it won’t be long before I will be anticipating its return.
Heather Rood
Thornton, Colorado