Stressed. Busy. Broke. Hurried. Behind. On edge. If any of these describe you during the month of December, it may be time for a new approach! Here are a few helpful hints to turn a joy-less season to the joy-FULL.
1. Ask your family what traditions they look forward to and value the most, then put those on the calendar. We often put time and energy into doing those things that "we've always done," even if no one really likes to do them! Put the most important traditions down on a piece of paper, and schedule when they will happen if at all possible, then if there is time to do some other things, great -- if not, you've at least experienced the ones that mean the most.
2. Consider simplifying gift-giving. Some ideas include making homemade gifts (see my blog entry from last year), buying one bigger item that encourages a skill, identifying a need, a want, and a surprise for each child and sticking with those as the 3 gifts (just like the Wise Men), or giving an experience, like a trip to a dude ranch, or a cooking class with a local chef. I also love those organizations, like Heifer International, that orchestrate the purchase of an animal to give to a struggling family in another country in someone's name.
*Make a list of "gifts to buy or make" and prepare in advance. Half of the stress we feel is mental because we procrastinate and then panic about getting everything done.
3. Get the Christmas card out early! My sister does her card before Thanksgiving and she gets the best 1/2 off deals and one of the biggest stresses of the holiday season is crossed off her list before December even begins. This is a biggie.... do what you need to do to get this done early! Then have the kids help stuff the envelopes and put the stamps on.
4. Think ahead and buy decorations and gifts in the off-season. Creating a Christmas home is a part of that "magical feeling" of this time of year, but buying decor can break the bank quickly. Hit the 50% off sales, or better yet, the 75% off after Dec.25. You get screaming deals and it is so rewarding when you get everything out the next year, knowing you paid a fraction of the price. I do this with hand soaps, serving dishes, and other gifts I can give to neighbors, teachers, etc.
Buying gifts throughout the year helps with budgeting also. I have designated one cupboard in my house as gift storage. When I see a gift that I know is perfect for someone, or an item at a great price, I buy it then and keep it until Christmas or a birthday.
5. Wrap as you go. Saving all of the wrapping until the few days before Christmas is exhausting and usually ends up happening late at night (which means no sleep). I set up a small 4 ft. table in our bedroom during the holidays. When I buy a gift, I wrap it and put it in one of my labeled bags. I have a bag designated for each child (for stocking stuffers and gifts), a bag for extended family gifts, friend gifts, and a bag for teacher/neighbor gifts.
6. Find ways to give back and spread the spirit of Christmas. We often pack shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child, deliver meals, carol at elderly homes, help local families anonymously, and give a special gift and letter to our Compassion children. It is so important to reach out to others--this is what the Christmas JOY is about!!
7. Bake throughout the season and freeze. Cookies freeze beautifully, both in dough form, and in cooked form. Bake something special each week and freeze what you don't need. I make my dough and roll it into individual cookies. I then place them on cookie sheets, freeze until firm, and store in a ziplock. When ready to cook, I take them out, place them on a cookie sheet, and bake. Storing dough in a full size ball is another way to freeze. Make the dough ahead of time, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, then freeze. When ready to use, de-thaw and proceed according to directions. The already cooked goods should be thawed unwrapped, or taken out of the bag (NOT wrapped in plastic -- this holds wet moisture in).
8. Prepare meals in advance. If you do nothing else this time of year, pick a day to do some serious cooking for the freezer with a friend or two, and get some meals ready that you can pull out when you are short on time. I have a full description of how to do this here.
9. Plan Advent a week before December. One of the most significant things that we do at our house is our Advent wreath. This is where we talk about what advent really means and the spiritual implications of Jesus' birth. There are often activities and supplies that I need to prepare in advance. If this is done early, the advent tradition is sure to be a central part of our season.
10. Keep a collection of Christmas books, that only come out this time of year, under the tree in a bucket. Grab a couple per night and read aloud under the twinkling of the lights. This will become a favorite tradition for your kids.