Real Simple readers share 16 trusted tips for enjoying―not dreading―the season.
Food and Cooking
I never put stress into holiday entertaining in the first place. Holidays are for close friends and family who don't care if the pie looks perfect or if everything is made from scratch. We concentrate on relaxing together, playing games, cooking and eating good food together, and giggling as much as possible.
Salt Lake City, Utah
I stick to tried-and-true recipes. They not only reduce the fear factor but also evoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia, as we recall Aunt Martha's caramels and Aunt Ginger's fruit salad from holidays past.
Elizabeth A. Keville
I realize that perfection is an impossibility, so I buy as much of the necessary food as I can already prepared. I used to have a 1950s mind-set with a modern-day lifestyle, and it only made me miserable. I learned that people would rather have a calm hostess and prepared food than time-intensive dishes and a stressful holiday meal.
I always make Thanksgiving dinner for my family, with about 17 to 20 people. I break the week down into daily chores so I can get everything done before the big day. On Monday I grocery shop; on Tuesday I bake; on Wednesday I make stuffing and prepare the potatoes. The evening before, I set the table and decorate it with leaves, candles, and pumpkins. On Thanksgiving morning, I cook the turkey, and I still have time to relax and watch a little bit of the parade on TV before company comes. Just before dinner, I heat up some vegetables and anything else guests have brought. I don't end up overwhelmed by the number of things that need to be done, and I actually get to enjoy my company.
Tarrytown, New York
As Christmas approaches, my dad and I pick a weekend to get together and make cookies to serve on Christmas Day. Other family members are there as we bake, and we all tell stories from previous holidays and gatherings. The ritual always centers and relaxes me and reminds me how special my family is to me.
Cedar Park, Texas
Twenty years ago, five of my colleagues and I decided to take a December weekend evening to make Christmas cookies together, creating holiday treats to share while relaxing and having a good time. All invitees bring cookie recipes and ingredients to bake from scratch. Recipes are swapped, and our cookie-baking skills have improved significantly. The event has since evolved into a competition, with recognition awarded for Best Cookie, First Runner-Up, Ms. Congeniality, and, at times, Needs Most Improvement. The event moved from Chicago to New Jersey when our employment opportunities migrated with the company most of us worked for, but we continue to have a wonderful time together and walk away with great cookies for the season.
Morristown, New Jersey
On Christmas Eve, I used to prepare the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes all on my own: seven fish or seafood dishes, like deep-fried calamari and garlic clams over linguini, for our whole family. Cooking for such a large group had become very stressful, so three years ago I decided to ask for help with the preparation. Now my sister, sisters-in-law, and nieces come over early, and each brings an entrée. We set up makeshift workstations and catch up while cooking. We get to laugh, chat, and reminisce―plus, we've started a tradition of our own.
Haddonfield, New Jersey
I have learned to take stress out of holiday entertaining by asking for help. My husband prepares the turkey outside on the charcoal grill so I can use the entire stove for side dishes. My mother-in-law makes delicious homemade bread, rolls, and dressing. It makes the dinner a team effort.
Spartanburg, South Carolina
Instead of the usual preholiday parties when everybody is so busy, I throw a Twelfth Night of Christmas party on January 6, usually incorporating traditions from the countries where it is routinely celebrated, from Ireland to Greece. Planning is so much easier and less expensive (all the holiday decorations are on sale), and I have more free time to attend to details. Most important, all my friends and family are around, with no multiple invitations and holiday-travel obligations. They tell me they look forward every year to extending the festive season for a few more days.
Los Angeles, California
It had become too difficult to find a day that would fit everyone's schedule during the holidays, so five years ago I decided to have a post-holiday party. I always plan it for the week after New Year's. I add in a game called the Regift Grab Bag, which is a great icebreaker: Each guest brings a gift she received that doesn't suit her, and we pool them. Then everyone picks a number from a hat. Whoever picks number 1 is first to choose from the pooled gifts, and so on―and there are always some hysterical offerings. The post-holiday period can be depressing, and this party keeps our spirits up.
Wharton, New Jersey
Instead of hosting a big, high-maintenance dinner, I have an ice-skating party for my friends at the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center, in New York City. We dress in red and green to make it festive, then head off to a diner afterward for steaming cups of hot chocolate.
New York, New York
For the past couple of years, we have stopped having huge holiday sit-down dinners. Instead, we have hors d'oeuvre-and-cocktail parties. Each guest brings a favorite appetizer, and we set up a bar in the kitchen. Everyone has the food and the drinks she loves, no one gets too full, and the atmosphere is far more relaxed and festive than when one host has to cook and clean up after a gigantic meal.
My husband and I invite our friends and families to join us for a trip to Hersheypark, where admission is free at Christmastime and everything is beautifully decorated in lights. Entertaining away from home allows us to enjoy ourselves without worrying about the mess. We walk around, admire the scenery, ride rides, and enjoy free samples of chocolate. Everyone has a wonderful time, and I don't have to worry about cleaning the house.
Taking Time Out for Family
Every year, my family joins my sister and me and our daughters―she has four and I have one―for Thanksgiving. While I enjoy having everyone over, I really love the day after. My sister and I get up at 6 a.m. to hit the early-morning sales, and we spend all day shopping, having lunch, and getting caught up. In the late afternoon, when we're exhausted, we head to the spa for a full-body massage and a steam. My mom gets to spend the day with all her granddaughters, and I get a whole stress-free day with my sister.
Santa Cruz, California
It took a bout with cancer for me to understand that the most important thing I can give someone is my time―not the beautiful decorated tree, not the lavish holiday dinner, not the expensive gifts. When you're facing an illness, you see life through new and more open eyes and a more compassionate heart. When you understand what is important and how precious life is, you automatically go into a stress-free mode and take time to enjoy your loved ones―the real meaning of family and holidays.
Mountain Top, Pennsylvania
Children, especially grandchildren, are the best stress relievers. Seeing the holidays through their eyes reminds you that, thank God, some things have not changed. Remember the turkey you made when you traced your hand? And the holiday cookies you made from scratch? I enjoy reminiscing about my youth with the little ones.