Stress-Free Holiday Tips

Sometimes it's a Christmas miracle if you can make it to New Year's Eve with your blood pressure in check, your sanity intact and your family still speaking to one another. Let our anti-stress experts help guide you through the holiday maze.



Illustration by Bic Parker

It's the most wonderful time of the year, right? So, how's that for a little pressure, assuming it's you in charge of the festivities. And the Christmas holidays are the original crowd-sourced event. In effect, we've all been deputized as Santa's helpers and each of us is in charge of spreading cheer, decking the halls and wassailing for our little individual corners of the world. To cut everyone just a little slack, here are some words of holiday advice from local experts on how to celebrate the season without turning into a Grinch.

Some of the following guides were compiled by our editorial staff, others written by pros from academia and the business world. Sometimes the most useful advice comes from the streets, so we put the word out on the web to get the wisdom of the masses. You'll find some of the best de-stressing tips in that collection (at the end of the article). And to complete our mission, we'll continue to solicit ideas from our readers and post them with the online version of this story.

If you have a hint or a time-tested formula for putting the "merry" back in Christmas (or any other of the season's many celebrations let us know. And in keeping with the spirit of the season of giving, we'll hand out a few special gifts to those who offer the most practical tips.


Making the Dreaded Cleaning Not So Dreadful

Not only are there gifts to buy and wrap, decorating to do, dinners to plan - the house has to sparkle too. Plus, there are all those projects you want to get done before the holidays. If you're tired just thinking about it, Sue West, a certified professional organizer and owner of the Amherst-based Space4U (www.organizenh.com), says take heart.

Her advice - make it as easy as possible on yourself. If your budget allows it, hire a professional service to clean your house and your carpets, and a personal assistant to run errands. She says, "It's the one time of the year you might want to spend the money for those things."

If that's not in the budget, she says there are still ways to make cleaning less of a chore:

  1. Make a list, even if you're not usually a list-maker. "You're busy in your normal life and adding a huge pro,ject like the holidays means you have to be organized."
  2. Break the work into manageable chunks. "Divide it so you can get it done in an afternoon or on a weekend."
  3. Start early. That gives you time to do long-term chores like polish the silver. "People tend to start on December 1 - that's too late."
  4. Think of yourself as a guest and clean your house in that order. If the activity is on the first floor, let the bedrooms go. If your bedrooms are on the same floor, block them off.
  5. Enlist help - your kids, your husband, whoever can yield a dust cloth or mop should be encouraged to pitch in.
  6. Don't use Christmas as the deadline for projects you haven't done. "You don't have to get new curtains for your house guest. Do it in January."
  7. Last, but certainly not least - dim the lights and use candles instead. It not only creates a magical atmosphere, it also hides a lot.

Just Desserts

Sometimes the sweetest parties are all about the sweets.

Most everyone loves going to holiday parties, but giving them? Not always. Usually there's a lot of time and prep work involved, and there's the cost to consider too. And can a hostess really enjoy her own party while she's busy in the kitchen? Here's a simple solution to all these entertaining road blocks: the "desserts only" open house.

If you are a great baker and have a specialty, by all means make a couple of your own delicious wonders for the big event. If not, the local baker is your new best friend. Grocery store bakeries make lovely desserts. Stop into yours about a week to 10 days ahead of time to see what they have to offer. Choose what you like and place the order. Then do the same with your favorite free-standing bakery. Remember that not everyone likes chocolate, and some folks might be allergic, so make sure there are chocolate-free options.

Chances are you have enough of your own dishes/cutlery/wine glasses to use on the big day. If not, party rental stores and even catering companies will easily help you fill in the gaps. Make the arrangements far enough in advance so that everything you will need is still available. (Again, a week to 10 days should be fine.)

Party stores and craft shops will help with easy and inexpensive decorations and holiday-themed tablecloths, although solid tablecloths in deep green or red are a bit more sophisticated. Keep lighting simple and use lots of white votive candles throughout your entertaining space. You want to avoid over-powering scented candles - the desserts smell so good on their own - and these create a shimmering, warm effect. Plus, you can get a great many for not too much money!

When it comes to beverages, red wine works with any dessert so stick with that along with sparkling water as a non-alcoholic alternative.

When the day of the open house arrives and you're done baking and/or picking up the desserts, simply slice them up and set them out, along with small plates, forks and napkins so your guests can serve themselves. Do the same with the wine, sparkling water and glasses.

Now it's time to turn on some festive background music, welcome your appreciative guests and have a great time at your own holiday open house!

– Gretchen Keene, writer and former editor of Romantic Homes magazine.


Cooking for Christmas Eve

Having friends or family for a light repast can be made simple with a nicely balanced cheese tray offering aged cheddars to shaved Parmesan to rich triple cream paired with a variety of wines. Prosecco goes with everything and the bubbles add to the festive spirit. Add a nice display of fresh fruit and bakery cookies and that should satisfy most everyone. If you want to have a simple sit-down dinner consider making a lasagna or other one-pot dish ahead of time and serving it with a fresh salad and crusty bread with a quality virgin olive oil for dipping.


Cooking for Christmas Dinner

Looking to have a feast that Scrooge would envy? There are several options - ask for help or keep it simple.

  1. Have guests bring specific items. Breads, salads, appetizers, desserts and even soups transport fairly well. Then you can concentrate on the main dish and simply prepared fresh vegetables.
  2. Find a vegetable casserole you like and you've solved the problem of keeping the vegetables warm through serving time.
  3. If you want to prepare a simple, easy meal, consider a pork roast. They are economical to buy and easy to prepare. Just make sure you have a meat thermometer and don't let the interior get above 145 degrees. It will cook more after it is out of the oven. Rub the exterior with a chipotle rub with cumin, coriander, chili powder and salt mixed with olive oil. Roast a one and a half pound boneless pork loin for 40 to 50 minutes at 375 degrees. Serve with a simple salad with pretty frisée lettuce or a black bean salad that can be made ahead.

Looking Your Best Under Stress

Looking your best for the holiday season doesn't always require a new outfit, salon up-do or freshly manicured nails. According to Susan Osborne, a certified image consultant in New Hampshire, looking good can and should be easy and simple. Here are some of Osborne's quick tips for looking the part during the holidays.

To keep looking simple and sleek, keep core clothes (pants, skirts, tops, jackets, dresses) to neutral colors that you may already own and add some bling with accessories like earrings, necklaces, fun and glittery scarves or some sexy heels.

If you don't usually wear makeup, simply adding some lip gloss can spice up your look. Painting your nails a light neutral color can also be a good stress-relieving DIY activity.

And ladies, if retail therapy is what you need to keep yourself sane during the season, buying a little black dress or a dress with a simple design is the best idea because you can wear it year after year without anyone knowing just by changing up your accessories.

Men, leave those khakis in the closet and instead wear some dark trousers with a button-down shirt or a vest. Since men don't have too many accessory choices, the key is in the shoes. Wear the nicest, dressiest ones you have to bring easy formality to the outfit.

"When we look good, we feel good," says Osborne.


Find the Perfect Gift

After all, isn't that the least you can do for everyone on your entire list?

Seek out target-rich environments.

Like the Button Factory Open Studios tour on Dec. 2-4. This is the 25th year of one of the oldest and most eagerly anticipated holiday arts events on the Seacoast, when the artists in the building open their doors to the public once a year on the first weekend in December. You can visit the artists, explore their studios and purchase their work in a sprawling, three-story building that has become the hub of an emerging arts district in Portsmouth's West End. The Button Factory is located at 855 Islington Street in Portsmouth, across from Plaza 800.

Follow the labyrinth of hallways and discover a truly eclectic group of more than 70 artists and craftspeople displaying beautiful handcrafted gifts. On Saturday and Sunday juried outside artists join the fun by setting up booths in the hallways. If you can't find the perfect gift here, then you really aren't trying.

Even if you don't buy anything the mood is relaxing and will help put you in the holiday spirit. The Friday evening kickoff features the band Regina Delaney and Friends playing Celtic music and there's always something interesting going on.


Keep it simple. Shop locally

(Our shopping expert makes a pledge)

It would be fair to say I ask a lot of the Concord area people who serve me throughout the year. I intend to return the favor by demonstrating my loyalty and focusing my shopping on my own hometown. The time and energy I'll save is just a bonus.

  • To Sondra at Chrome Salon, 22 Bridge St., I will be in to buy hair products for stocking stuffers and maybe a gift card for a spray tan.
  • At Bravo, 97 N. Main St., I'll ask A.J. to help me pick out a fabulous necklace or handbag for the fashionista on my list.
  • At The Capitol Craftsmen and Romance Jewelers, 16 N. Main (where they treat me like Elizabeth Taylor), I can expect Sue to help me pick out a charm for a certain teenager and I'll have it gift wrapped for free.
  • Next door at Caring Gifts, 18 N. Main St., I'll grab some elegant paper cocktail napkins and perhaps have a warming spa basket put together and shipped off to Florida.
  • After I grab a rich and creamy cream puff at Bread and Chocolate it's off to Gibson's Bookstore to pick up Kevin Flynn and Rebecca Lavoie's new book, "Legally Dead."
  • Lisa from Kaza, 202 S. Main, can count on me to buy her one-of-a-kind handmade tree ornaments (her sparkly Eiffel Towers really "pop" on a tree). I'll also buy the funky cement light bulb for the "thinker" on my list.
  • For my hard-to-buy-for brother-in-law Mike (who once got an old Manchester parking meter from me), I'll be respectful and pick up gift certificates at both Red River Theatres and The Capitol Center for the Arts.
  • Finally, I'm heading to Lilise-Designer Resale, 113 Storrs St., Suite 3, where I know I can count on Ellen to have a little something perhaps in Armani for me to wear to my friend Nancy's holiday party.

Cheers to all my retail friends, who through thick or thin consistently fly the "open" flag and go the extra mile for their customers.

- Lisa Brown, writer for our "Retail" page and proud Concord resident


Deck The Halls Not Your Brother-In-Law

Why is it that the season of joy and peace is often the time that family faultlines fracture and the mood around the holiday table has so much tension you could carve it with a turkey knife?

According to Sheila McNamee, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, there are many reasons why families fight more during the holidays. Among the most common areas of contention are different values, beliefs and "ways of being." As McNamee explains, adult children live in communities where their values and beliefs often contrast with those of their family "context." Additionally, marriage brings different families together. Everyone is expected to get along as if they are a homogenous group with similar life experiences.

Conflict also often arises when relatives are torn between behaving as the person they see themselves today and like the person who relatives remember them as being. According to McNamee, because that past identity is part of a relative's personal repertoire, it's not difficult to slip back into being the person relatives "knew" you as.

Unresolved hurtful situations or hidden animosities also bubble up during the holidays. McNamee recommends families try to have a different conversation about the issue instead of the "same old conversation, which undoubtedly is a conversation best described as the blame game."

McNamee suggests families not focus on the content of the disagreement and instead look at the disruptive patterns that they find themselves in over and over and over again. "It is those patterns that need to change, not the people and not (necessarily) the content," she says.

When disagreements do arise, the best way to diffuse tension is to approach conflict with genuine curiosity, which goes to the heart of how people develop meaningful relationships. "Rather than do the knee-jerk thing - trying to figure out who is right, who is wrong or who is to blame - try to find out what relationships or communities the other person is part of where this way of being (this belief or value) makes sense," McNamee says.

Families may want to lay down communication "ground rules" prior to family gatherings that will protect relatives from being attacked. These rules might include:

  • Speak using only "I" statements.
  • Avoid blame. Instead of blame, ask questions to gain coherence and understanding.
  • Don't let relatives interrupt each other.
  • Engage in generous listening instead of treating listening as an opportunity to "reload" during a disagreement.
  • Finally, McNamee recommends relatives take a deep breath and a pause in conversation when they feel themselves getting excited or angry in response to each other. Count to three and try to think of what could possibly support the action of the other.

- By Lori Wright, UNH public information officer.


Have Fun at the Office Party

(and keep your job, too)

It probably goes without saying (but we're going to say it anyway, just to be safe) that the office holiday party is not the time to relive your wild college days or to profess your unrequited love for a fellow co-worker. The line between having fun but staying professional can be a tricky path to navigate, but by following a few of Armida Geiger's etiquette suggestions you should get out unscathed and with your job intact.

Geiger runs the Adélie School of Protocol in Durham (adeliesop.wordpress.com) and would have you keep this one general rule in mind: "Don't do anything you're going to regret the next day, the next week or the next month."

To help keep you from doing something regrettable, Geiger explains that a little restraint is in order. Keeping the alcoholic drinks to a minimum is fairly obvious, but Geiger adds that you should also watch what - and when - you eat. Don't dive into the food immediately after you arrive, and don't overload your plate when you get there. Piling up a dinner's worth of food on a small surface meant for appetizers leaves you unable to juggle food, a drink and social interactions like shaking hands.

Body language and personal space are also important to be aware of, says Geiger. Hold your drink in your left hand to prevent having to awkwardly shift your drink when you meet a new person or want to accept a business card.

While you may know many of your co-workers on a social level, she adds, it's still a professional environment. For example, if you're sitting next to someone and want to get his or her attention, put your hand on the arm, never the person's leg. Did you greet someone with a platonic kiss on the cheek? Geiger suggests that you immediately follow it up with a warm handshake.

When it comes to getting dressed, keep the cologne or perfume to a minimum. If you can smell it when you walk back into the room, says Geiger, you've overdone it. Dressing up is a great idea (unless otherwise stated in an invitation), but dressing for the club or showing a lot of skin is not. As Geiger says, "You want to send the message that you're professional."

Maybe you're fine with what to wear, eat and drink, but making conversation gives you cold sweats. Again, Geiger advises simply "don't overdo." This is not the time to share the story of your friend's messy divorce, your medical problems or anything else overly personal, long-winded or negative. Think of some topics in advance that will keep conversation light and moving along. Locate three or more people talking and find a good opportunity to politely join their conversation. Avoid pairs - they could be having a more private talk you don't want to interrupt. Other things to avoid, says Geiger, include profanity and gossip.

Should the office party be in someone's home, bring a hostess gift. This does not mean you bring a bottle of wine to share, says Geiger. If you want to bring wine, buy two bottles - one for the host to keep and one to drink now.

If the party is at your home, there's an easy way to show consideration and class, says Geiger. Have someone at the door to greet guests when they knock to avoid the awkward "should we just go in?" moment if you don't hear the door. The greeter can also take coats, which is a simple but appreciated gesture.

All situations are different, and you may find yourself in uncharted social waters. Geiger adds that if you're always kind and use your "social intelligence," you'll keep yourself out of embarrassing or awkward moments. Plus, you might even manage to have fun. Imagine that!


Combining Traditions

Addressing the challenges of that increasingly common multi-cultural holiday now known as Chrismakkuh, Jeanne Benedict, host of the theme party show on the DIY network, "Weekend Entertaining," says that finding the commonalities between Christmas and Hanukkah is the key in decorating for the holidays.

Stars are a shared symbol of both holidays that can come together on a tabletop into a stunning display," she notes. "A few select shades from each holiday's color palette could be fabulous." She suggests having blue and green glassware while bringing in silver (a color both holidays share) in the serving ware and stars. "Consider a menorah flanked with two miniature Christmas trees, such as blue, white, or silver tinsel tree, on a mantel or as a party table centerpiece."


Spruce Up Your Wrapping

('cause sometimes stress-free equals cheap)

One way to save money and be "green" with your holiday wrapping is to use materials from the back yard. Holly leaves, hemlock, a spray of pine needles or a few laurel leaves look very pretty against plain brown shipping paper, says interior designer Meredith Bohn of Hollis. If you are shipping gifts, she recommends using the face of old Christmas cards and double-face taping them in the center of a package that has a simple flat ribbon wound on the diagonal. With no crushed bows, your gift will arrive pretty as a picture. Bohn also recommends just using three designs of gift paper, all with the same limited color palette. Silver and green for fresh appeal, to purple and gold for a rich look, to blue and white for a tailored look, your set of gifts will look amazingly organized under the tree.


Real Simple Decorating Tips

Concord's own Matthew Mead, who has designed for national magazines like Real Simple, has recently created his own magazine, Holiday with Matthew Mead, and a new product line that can be found at www.matthewmeadcollection.com. Mead offers the following tips for de-stressing the decorative impulses: "I like to keep decorating simple and use fresh boxwood, which does not shed," says Mead. "I also have several small cocktail or dessert parties leading up to Christmas instead of one big gathering and I use candles and white lights, which hide a multitude of sins and add a festive glow to everything." For more tips and information about Mead's magazine, visit www.holidaywithmatthewmead.com.


Spice Up Your Gift

Celery Salt is quick and easy to make, inexpensive and, most important of all, it makes a beautiful gift presented in small attractive glass jars easily found in most craft stores. Show your love and appreciation for loved ones this year with this heartfelt handmade gift.

  • Begin by purchasing a large bunch of fresh celery with leaves, sea salt (Maldon, Kosher or Diamond are fine) and small glass jars.
  • Pick the leaves off the stalks of the celery and wash and dry them. For the oven method of dehydrating your leaves, spread them out on baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes or until they reach a dry enough stage to crumble. For the microwave method, arrange the dry celery leaves on paper towels and microwave for 4 minutes.
  • Let the leaves cool.
  • Measure out the amount of salt it will take to fill your glass jar, pour the salt into a bowl and toss the dried leaves on top.
  • With clean hands, work the salt and celery leaves together until well combined, pulling out any stray stalks. The more leaves to salt ratio, the better the fragrance and flavor of the salt.
  • Spoon into your glass jars and secure the top.

- Hillary Davis


More Stress-Free Holiday Tips

We asked the crowd what they thought and got a friendly flood of ideas.

  • Delegate small tasks ahead of time. Someone in charge of plating and serving dessert, someone else makes coffee, someone tends bar for your guests. Make sure everyone knows their duty ahead of time.
  • Ask your family and guests to bring a dish. People are happy because they feel like they have contributed to the meal and you have lightened your load in the process.
  • Try to focus on natural décor (think of looking right in your back yard) for your table and house. Natural décor is fun & creative while it lasts and the best part - it can be added to the compost pile when you are done. You save money and time lugging out every last bit of decoration you have been collecting for decades.
  • Go to Hawaii.
  • Skip Christmas altogether and proceed right to New Year's. Cheers!
  • Keep a notepad in your car with a pen - when you're at a stop light, try to jot down your Christmas list.
  • Take your iPod out and walk for an hour in the crisp air, playing Christmas carols to get you in the mood. Don't be afraid to sing out loud.
  • Convert to Zoroastrianism.
  • Go outside and throw snowballs at each other to relieve stress, then go in and warm up with a cup of hot cocoa/rum and a hot bath with candles.
  • Don't answer your phone while you shop, focus on the task at hand.
  • Wrap a couple of gifts each night after the kids go to bed, with a glass of wine, of course, so you don't have to do it all at the end.
  • One of the best things you can do is a spa treatment or two. Schedule the time and unwind.
  • Mailing gifts to out of state relatives: Purchase gifts that are small in size and will fit in U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail boxes.
  • Bring your wrapped gifts, addresses and a marker to the Post Office and package them there. It's easy. You don't even need tape, as the boxes are self-adhesive.
  • Theme gifts: I have four sisters, and it is my hope that when they receive my mailed gift they call and talk to each other about it. "So, what do you think about Connie's gift this year?" When I find something I think they would all find interesting I pick up four of them.
  • Stocking stuffing can be fun. For kids in college, a first-aid theme is not only useful but really easy. They fill up the stocking quickly and you can simply pick them up while doing groceries. College students can always use Band-Aids, aspirin, Chapstick, etc.
  • My husband and I have found the best way to ease the holiday season is to pick a few important events/parties to attend and don't stretch your schedule too thin. We have two small children and we always keep in mind that quality time outweighs quantity. Save a few parties for after the holidays and you can spend more time with those you missed the month before. Cheers! - Alison Choquette, Chester, N.H.

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