It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but with the endless to-do lists, maxed-out bank account, and full-to-the-brim calendar, it can also be the most stressful. Here on the blog, we talk a lot about how to make the holidays beautiful and delicious, but I also didn’t want the season to slip by without spending some time talking about how to make it truly joyful. Back when I was an event planner, I worked on a lot of holiday parties for my clients, and I often witnessed hostesses who were so stressed and harried by the time the actual holiday rolled around, they just wanted to get it over with! I’m sure we’ve all felt that way at one time or another, and over the years, I’ve developed a few techniques that help me extract the most joy, fun, and treasured memories out of the holidays… and kick most of the major stress-inducers to the curb. Click through the slideshow for my top tips.
Take the easy way out.
Just because something’s difficult doesn’t make it better. That simple pumpkin pie (made with store-bought crust) might be every bit as delicious as the towering 6-layer German Chocolate cake. A gift wrapped in humble kraft paper and red twine can be just as beautiful as one wrapped in handmade paper or tied with professional-quality bows. Of course, if you’re happiest in the kitchen or can’t get enough of crafting, then by all means — go ahead and savor the sheer joy of tackling a challenging project. But if attempting a holiday task feels daunting or you keep shifting it around on your to-do list, it might be time to just hit “delete.” There’s no shame in taking the easy way out if it frees up the time you need to enjoy doing the things that will really feed your soul this season.
*image: chestnut & sage
Create a master timeline.
When preparing for any type of event — neighborhood holiday party or family Christmas breakfast — there’s only one way to ensure a stress-free and seamless gathering: detailed, down-to-the-minute planning. Create a timeline counting down the 24 hours before mealtime, listing exactly when all menu items should be prepared and other tasks (lighting candles, turning on music, getting yourself ready!) should be accomplished. Then put that list on the refrigerator door and follow it to the letter.
Don’t let a small space stop you.
I’ve heard so many people say that they can’t host a gathering because their space isn’t big enough, but in my opinion, cramming lots of people in a cozy space can make for some of the most fun parties! If you’re going for it, rethink your furniture arrangement to create more space. So your 4-person kitchen table won’t fit all the friends and family you’d like to seat for the feast? Consider moving the dining table into the living room, and extending it with folding tables that you can line up end-to-end and cover with a pretty tablecloth. It’ll make the dining table the unexpected focal point of the room, plus open up all kinds of space you didn’t know you had. And of course, you can always setup everything buffet style in the kitchen and let people fill their plates and lounge on the couch, floor cushions, kitchen island – wherever they’d like to perch! This kind of party creates a really relaxed vibe where guests are truly invited to kick off their shoes and stay awhile. Sometimes a lack of space can forge all sorts of new friendships (or holiday romances!)
*image: apartment 34
Choose a couple of traditions to focus on.
Especially when you have kids, there can be a lot of pressure to celebrate every possible tradition around the holidays, from decorating gingerbread houses to sitting on Santa’s lap to hauling everyone to see the Nutcracker. While I adore traditions and the way that they mark the passage of time and create special memories as a family, I think it’s important to hone in on which ones really mean something to your family… and being okay with letting the rest go. The season is too short to try and do it all! For us, one tradition that I’ll never let go is our ornament collection: Growing up, my parents would buy my brother, sister and me one new ornament each year. It was always personal – I might receive a teacup or a dancing girl depending on my interests at the time – and when I reached adulthood, I had 20 special ornaments that represented each holiday since my birth. I’ve continued the tradition with Phoebe, and it’s so fun to search for that one perfect ornament for her each year. It’s traditions like these that sort of hit the “pause” button on the madness of the holidays, and help me slow down and savor the moment.
Think beyond the floral arrangement.
Don’t get bogged down with the pressure to create “perfect” floral arrangements – ’tis the season for all kinds of natural centerpieces that don’t require any arranging skills! One of my favorite holiday centerpieces ever was the year that I bought some huge beautiful poinsettia plants, wrapped the bases in burlap, and scattered them down the center of my dining table buffet. Fill a large bowl with pomegranates, place a bunch of red berry branches in a pitcher, go for a nature walk and clip some pine branches to spread down the center of the table. There’s so much beauty in nature at this time of year — get inspired to bring the outdoors in!
image source unknown
Ask for help.
The holidays are a great time to enlist the help of family and friends and ask everyone to contribute one of their favorite dishes to the meal. For big holiday feasts, I sometimes send out an email and have everyone “sign up” in advance so I can make sure we’ve got all the bases covered and there’s not too much overlap (or you might end up with three pecan pies!)
Include a couple of menu items that can be served at room temperature.
This is a trick that I picked up in my catering days, and it ensures that you’re not scrambling to get every single item out on the buffet or table at once. I’ll make an appetizer like a cheese and meat board that can sit out unattended for a couple of hours during cocktails. Sides like a brussels sprouts salad and wild rice pilaf are delicious at room temperature, so you can set those out first while you slice the prime rib and keep the mashed potatoes warm in the oven.
Hosting the holidays does not require Martha-like perfectionism. Remember, it’s all about counting our blessings and spending relaxed time with our family and friends, so ditch the pressure, stress, and unrealistic expectations, and instead embrace an attitude that puts the focus back on having fun and creating great memories with the people you care about. Remember, your guests don’t want to be impressed – they want to be welcomed into a warm and inviting atmosphere to eat delicious food and savor great conversation!
*photo: elizabeth messina
Make a punch!
Every guest loves the throwback vibe of a big bowl of fruity, boozy punch, and the best part is that guests can help themselves to seconds without having to ask! My favorite punch recipes for holiday parties: sparkling citrus and my signature pomegranate.
*image from this post
Focus on the decorative elements that will make an impact.
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to deck out every corner of your house, choose the key areas (say, the fireplace, front door entryway, and dining room table) and turn those into statement-making spots that will make the entire house feel festive.
*image: martha stewart
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