Plan a Stress-Free Holiday: Fun Organizing Tips

We know you're making your list and checking it a bazillion times, so be sure to consult our cheat sheet of 36 creative ways to make your holidays more organized -- and more fun.

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

5 "Jobs" for Keeping Kids Busy
Games and coloring pages are great, but bouncing-off-the-walls kids might settle down more happily with something useful to do (all the better if it means one of your preholiday tasks gets done).

Centerpiece creation: Give each child a pillar candle set on an aluminum pie plate, and have her surround it with evergreen branches, pinecones, clementines, and other (nonflammable) items.

Place-card making: Jot down a list of who's coming to dinner, then put out card stock and markers. Let the kids design the cards and figure out the seating chart.

Garland stringing: An oldie-but-goodie that requires only a 5-foot length of fishing line or dental floss, a needle, and a bowl of fresh cranberries and stale popcorn.

Bird feeding: Hand out pinecones, toasted bagel halves, or even cardboard shapes. Invite the kids to spread peanut butter on them, then coat them with birdseed and hang them in your yard.

Play performance: Suggest a holiday-themed story and ask the kids to develop a short theatrical version of it to act out after dinner. The prep can take a long time, if you need it to (think: handmade tickets, a concessions stand, scenery). Bribe teens to help out the younger ones.

Write Up a Bucket List of Fun
Here's how to make sure you carve out time for everybody's holiday wishes: make a to-do list. After Thanksgiving, have each person in the family name one or two seasonal things they want to do, such as decorating cookies, seeing The Nutcracker, taking a neighborhood-lights drive, watching Elf, or making latkes. Post the list in a conspicuous place.

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Photograph by Allie Cottrill

It's a Wrap!
We asked our readers how they get everything wrapped and ready while keeping the activity on the down-low. Here's what they said.

I record terrible, corny holiday movies on my DVR. Then I pick a time when the kids are at school and spend the day wrapping, watching movies, and eating Christmas cookies.

Kelly McElwain
Lexington, SC

I wrap Christmas presents as soon as I buy them, then stack them high on top of the bookcases in our living room. The gifts become part of the holiday decorations, and the location makes them less tempting to peekers.

Melanie Pearlman
Goleta, CA

For the past eight years, my girlfriends and I have had an annual "Wrap Party." We each bring our gifts and wrapping paper -- and snacks! -- to the host's house, then we stay and wrap until the wee hours of the morning. We get time with our friends, get our gifts wrapped, and get to see what everyone's kids are getting.

Kathleen Bennett
Madison, AL

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

Make Merry in the Hardware Store
We're not telling you to create gift tags from paint chips, because officially, paint chips are for the people buying paint! But there's still plenty of festive fun to be found in the home-improvement aisles.

Pick up 10 1/4-inch galvanized hex nuts and assemble a mini menorah with a mint tin, 9 magnets, and 9 birthday candles. Have a happy little Hanukkah!

Get a roll of builder's paper (we found a 140-foot roll at Home Depot for $10.97) and a ball of jute twine and wrap all your gifts in a charming "brown paper packages tied up with string" way. Builder's paper is cheaper and more flexible than kraft paper. You can also tape a length to the table or floor for space-craving artists or create a disposable runner for your buffet.

A metal 2 1/2-quart pail makes a perfectly sleek and simple gift container for cellophane-wrapped treats. So does a 1-gallon lidded paint can, which you can even seal, label, and put directly in the mail -- no other packaging required.

Use a cord-storage reel to keep strands of lights or tinsel garland untangled. Or, you know, for cords.

Open Your Heart
If your family is looking for a hands-on way to give back this season, try, a website that pairs volunteers with organizations eager for help. Just type in your zip code, and you'll see who needs you nearby.

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

4 Ways to Fancy Up Your Wrapping
Deck out plain packages with embellishments you can tie on with ribbon or stick on with glue dots. This is a great job for kids who have gift-wrapping enthusiasm without any actual wrapping aptitude.

1. A few jingle bells

2. Sprigs of spruce

3. Pinecones

4. Candy canes

Prepare for Gifting Emergencies
It's wise to keep a stash of wrapped gifts on hand for unexpected drop-ins and last-minute invitations. These three ideas cover a wide range of giftees:

For youngsters: Playmobil's 1.2.3 Moon Rocket is made for counting down and blasting off. Ages 18 months to 4 years, $8.99,

For older kids: Qwixx is a compact dice game that's as easy to learn as it is addictive. Ages 8 and up, $10.99,

For everyone: You can't go wrong with a bag of Ghirardelli Peppermint Bark Squares. $5.99,

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

4 Ways to Package Gift Cards for Teachers
Personalize a go-to gift with a fun presentation and a goofy message.

1. For a coffee shop card: "Thanks a latte!" or "You're tea-rrific!" written on a cup sleeve.

2. For a bookstore card: "So glad you're in this chapter of our lives!" given with a handmade bookmark.

3. For an office-supply store card: "Supplies! You're the best" on a mini decorated clipboard.

4. For a pedicure or manicure card: "For your mistle-toes" wrapped with a bottle of nail polish, or "You're the best teacher, hands-down" with your child's traced-hand card (be sure to paint the fingernails).

A Trio of Great Gift Gadgets
The right gizmo can make repetitive tasks fun and creative tasks failure-proof.

1. Tag Lever Punch (XX-Large): The kids can punch out all your gift tags -- for years to come -- from whatever decorative paper scraps you have handy. $16.99,

2. Envelope Template Kit: Six traceable plastic pieces let you make any size envelopes (perfect for gift cards and cash) from old maps, catalogs, calendars, and rejection letters. $15,

3. Package Opener: With spring-action, angled blades, and a screwdriver sized for unlocking battery compartments, this tool is ideal for breaking into that tear-your-hair-out toy packaging that seems invented by evil robots. $14.99,

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

Keep Legomaniacs Busy
Illustrator, photographer, and Lego builder Chris McVeigh designs and shares free building plans for witty, pick-a-brick holiday ornaments at

3 Tips for the Jolliest Holiday Photographs
"Our pictures provide a visual record of our holiday memories," says Sarah Wilkerson, CEO of Clickin Moms, an organization of female photographers. Here's her advice for capturing the season's sweetness.

1. Get on your kid's level. Kneel or crouch down when snapping pictures of children to establish a connection and level eye contact. You might also shoot low and directly behind a child to capture her perspective as she decorates cookies or unwraps presents.

2. Turn off your flash. The auto-flash on your camera or phone will overwhelm the glow of sparkling holiday lights or a lit menorah.

3. Tune in to the little things. Seeing specific details helps bring memories into focus. In addition to photographing the faces of friends and family, bring your camera in close to capture holiday visuals such as pretty gift packaging, a close-up of a child's handwriting as she composes her letter to Santa, snow-crusted mittens, or little fingers placing an ornament on the tree.

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Photograph by Allie Cottrill

Teach Gratitude by Practicing It
You want your kids to learn to be genuinely gracious. So when they're presented with Uncle Fester's hand-carved recorder, skip an insincere "I love it" or the overly honest "It gave me lip splinters," and find the true, good things. "It must have been so hard to make! It's amazing that it plays all the notes." Kids can practice before extended family arrives: for example, challenge them to find something nice to say about a disliked vegetable. ("Wow, Mom, I love the cheese you put on this cauliflower!")

3 Ways to Say Thank You
Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily, and coauthor of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th edition, believes in the power of thank-you notes because "they teach kids the importance of gratitude and help create a foundation for expressing gratitude in the future." But you can just tell your kids that people who send thank-you notes get more gifts.

1. Photograph your child with the present, have her draw a picture of herself with it, or even make a video of her using it and offering her thanks, then upload it and e-mail the link.

2. Have her list the "Top Ten" (or five or three) reasons why the gift is perfect.

3. With younger children, offer to transcribe a spoken message. Your child will feel less overwhelmed by the task, and you'll get to include all of the hilarious and heartfelt particularities of her gratitude.

Originally published in the December/January 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.