The Smart Parent's Holiday Survival Guide

These real-mom strategies for shopping, gift-giving, hosting, and time management will help you de-stress your holiday season.

Handle Event Overload Like a Pro

Don't feel obligated to attend every event. Even if you do have the time and energy, there's still the matter of wrangling a babysitter, which can be tricky this time of year. Most moms agree it's best to limit your RSVPs to a handful, if possible. "There are certain parties, like the family gathering we have every Christmas Eve, that I count on no matter what," says Alisa Fitzgerald, a mom of two from Boxford, Massachusetts. "Others take a backseat. Also, I hate to admit this, but I put off RSVPing until close to the deadline, so I can make an informed decision about which events are more important to attend -- or which ones we'd simply enjoy more."

Have an exit strategy. "Setting expectations ahead of time, such as how long you plan to stay at the party, is a good thing," says Ann Glackin, a mom of two from Clifton Park, New York. "My husband and I try to map things out. If it's something like an office or family event, this includes who we need to chat with before leaving. This way, we're both on the same page and one of us doesn't end up tired, bored, or annoyed because the other isn't ready to leave. And if we're planning a quick visit, we'll let the host know. 'We can't stay long, but we didn't want to miss your party!' we say on arrival, and then she doesn't feel offended when we slip out."

Divide and conquer. "Often I will go to a party and take one of our kids, and my husband will stay home, or vice versa," says Bridget Pelosi, a mom of two from Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. "It's not ideal -- but it works."

Streamline and Simplify the Gift-Exchange Process

Keep a running wish list. Last year, my husband and I filled a folder with pages torn from catalogs, toy circulars, and things our son, now 5, saw on TV and begged us to buy for him. When our relatives asked what the kids would like, we weeded through the folder and had them choose their favorite things.

Swap lists of ideas. "My family has always exchanged gift lists," says mom of two Catherine Cartwright Holecko, of Neenah, Wisconsin. It saves you loads of time, everyone gets just what they want, and it spares you from having to stand in return lines for ages after the holidays.

Pare down your shopping list for your child. "Santa brings my kids only a few gifts each -- because their grandparents get them so much stuff it's insane!" says Kate Clow, a mom of three from Chatham, New Jersey. "Rather than argue with their present overload, I decided to let it go. I just keep the number of gifts I buy to a minimum. And I can't tell you how much it's decreased stress in my life. There's less shopping, wrapping, and clutter in our house! Plus, it saves us so much money."

Do a gift swap -- especially if you're from a big family. This is another genius holiday sanity saver Clow's family has adopted: "Around Thanksgiving we throw everyone's name into a hat. Then we each draw a name, and that's who we buy for. So rather than getting presents for my sisters, parents, aunts, cousins, and so on, we have a one-person, one-gift limit."

Suggest kiddie gifts that don't come from a toy store. "I tell family members to buy books for my two girls," says Glackin. "That way, we have a variety of things to read to them -- we aren't stuck with Goodnight Moon every night! Plus, books don't take up much space."

Shop Online
Greg Clarke

Do the Actual Shopping Without Dropping

Go for one-stop online shopping. The Internet is a miracle when it comes to holiday shopping. That, you know! But you can take it one step further: Instead of ordering from multiple places, consolidate and order from a single site. "I get fruit baskets or wreaths for all of my husband's aunts," says Cartwright Holecko. It's a simplifying move that also works well for buying presents such as books and music and for shopping from department stores or websites that sell a range of stuff. And you'll save on shipping when you order from one place.

Get the girls together and make a day of it. Any daunting task is easier and way more fun if you do it as a group. So schedule a shopping date with a bunch of friends. It's also a great way to slip in some girl time -- which tends to be nonexistent, yet much needed, during the holidays. And you're bound to end up swapping hilarious stories about some of the crazy relatives you're shopping for. My mom and two sisters and I head out every November to Christmas shop for each other. Sometimes we buy gifts then and there (the sweater I see my sister admiring, for example) or we'll have a blast just browsing together -- but pick up ideas for things we can buy later online.

Next year, start really, really early. "I begin shopping right after Christmas and am usually done by July," says Jennifer LaFond, a mother of two from Glens Falls, New York. "I know that sounds insane, but everything is about 70 percent off then, so you can save a boatload of money. And if you do it little by little, it's no big stress once the holidays actually roll around. I also pick up gift tags, ribbon, and wrapping paper after Christmas and wrap everything right after I buy it. You don't get to enjoy Christmas if you're rushing around like a madwoman or wrapping presents until 2 a.m."

Avoid Christmas-Card Anxiety

Skip the personalized cards. Yes, cards with handwritten notes of cheer and goodwill are lovely, but no one faults a busy mom for sending a family photo with a generic message. And this is the age of online everything, so why not take advantage of it? "Subscribe to a service like Shutterfly that allows you to put your address book online, then upload the photo you want to use, and they'll send the cards for you," Fitzgerald says. Initially, it takes time getting all the info in there, but next year will be a breeze.

Morph your Christmas cards into Happy New Year greetings. One year, Cartwright Holecko got so crazed that she didn't get her greetings out on time. "Rather than stress about it, I decided to wait until the madness passed and send them out with New Year's wishes. My friends and family loved it! There's something nice and unexpected about receiving a card after the holiday rush."

Holiday Help
Greg Clarke

Host a Stress-Free Holiday

Forget Martha Stewarting your house. "It's just too much time and stress!" says LaFond. "And trust me, no one misses it if you decide not to construct homemade wreaths or if you skip putting candles and fake snow in all your windows. My advice: Pick one area to doll up, and let the rest go. The only real decorations we do aside from the Christmas tree are the outdoor ones. We've made putting up the inflatable snowman and stringing the lights a tradition. Our 5-year-old son, Aidan, loves to help." Think about it: Filling the house with happiness and holiday spirit is much more important than filling it with knickknacks.

Spend hours cooking a turkey? Uh-uh. LaFond forgoes the bird for Christmas dinner. "I'll make lasagna that I can put together in advance or London broil that I can throw on the grill, served with mashed potatoes and veggies," she says. "And for dessert I just put out the cookies that my son and I baked. Easy, but still festive and really yummy."

Skip the big, elaborate dinner all together. "We have everyone over for brunch," Clow says. "I buy bagels and cream cheese and put together an egg casserole, and my husband makes bacon and sausage. It's easy cooking, and everyone loves breakfast food! It makes for a nice, relaxed meal together."

Repeat these words: The house does not need to be spotless. "I remind myself that my parents love me and won't judge me if the house is a mess," Glackin says. "It's the holidays! There are bound to be wineglasses, wrapping paper, and toys everywhere. I try to look at it this way: A messy house is a clear sign that people are having a good time."

Can't not clean the house? At least have someone else do it. "After my daughter, Reese, arrived and the holidays came around, my mom pals insisted I hire a service to clean before the party we have each year for our friends and neighbors," says Elizabeth Davies, a mom of one from Boulder, Colorado. "It seemed like a splurge, but honestly, it was worth every sanity-saving penny! And if you don't have overnight guests, you can just have the downstairs done, which costs a lot less."

Have a preholiday cookie-baking party. "It's a great way to kill two birds with one stone: We invite our friends' kids over to bake and have the dough ready to go," Fitzgerald says. "The children have a blast, and you get lots of eager decorators to help you. We always make lots of extras to send home with them. It's great to have extras on hand for last-minute presents."

Stay Put or Visit Relatives?

This is one of the stickiest issues for most new moms. "You're used to spending Christmas with your family, so once the baby arrives, it's easy for everyone to assume it's going to continue that way," Kate Clow says. How you handle the day (whether you are at your in-laws' or at your parents') is also crucial.

Here's what some moms do:

Make the trip, but also have people come to you. "We spend Christmas with my parents," says Berry Walker. "But the year my first daughter was born, friends and family from my hometown all wanted to meet her. Rather than schlep everywhere, we held an open house at my parents'. It made for a fun, no-hassle afternoon."

See family in spread-out doses. "I have my husband's folks over on Christmas Eve for a simple dinner," says Jennifer LaFond. "We spend Christmas morning at our house opening presents with our kids -- just us, no family -- then my parents come for dinner that night."

Make it clear that you're only going to travel for the first few years. "It's easy to travel with a newborn," says Cartwright Holecko. "But if you show you're willing to travel for the holidays, you're setting yourself up for more difficult trips as the kids grow."

Consider what's going to be the most fun for your child. "Christmas is a much bigger deal to my husband's family, so we always spend the day at his parents'," Ann Glackin says. "They invite 5,000 cousins and aunts and uncles over. I used to dread it, but I've learned to see it through my children's eyes, and it's helped me enjoy the day so much more. They have a ton of fun being around all the other kids. And knowing that makes it feel less lonely and overwhelming for me. That...and lots of wine."

Real Mom Trade-Offs: What Stays and What Goes?

"The year my kids were born, I was the biggest stress case, running around and trying to get all the food and gift shopping done. Two days before Christmas, I was on the phone with my sister and admitted I had yet to buy presents for her, my mom, and my other two sisters. She hadn't either. So we decided to wait until after Christmas to exchange gifts -- and we've been doing that ever since. One thing even having twins hasn't kept me from doing, however: spending all day on the 24th preparing a million-course Christmas Eve feast. I love to cook! And to me, sitting down to a big family meal is what the holidays are all about."-- Cameron Burke, a mom of twins from Boston

"Before I was a mother, I always had a beautiful, perfect, all-white Christmas tree. Now, with three boys, I have a special tree in the playroom with ornaments they made, a tree in our family room with colored lights and funny, cute ornaments, and one in the living room with my white lights and delicate glass ornaments. The boys love all of them, and we decorate together. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it to me to still have my special tree."-- Carole Lyons, of Birmingham, Alabama

"Once my husband and I started a family, it was really important to me that we spent Christmas at our own house -- something I knew wouldn't go over well with the grandparents and relatives, many of whom live within easy travel distance. So as a trade-off, I promised we'd visit whenever they wanted up through Christmas Eve. Really! I will literally schlep anywhere, to any and every party we are invited to. It's worth the travel headaches to me to be able to have a peaceful Christmas Day at our home with just the four of us."-- Marci Foster, a mom of two from Hinesburg, Vermont

"I could never give up decorating the house, which can be very time-consuming. My husband loves to go nuts, putting up lights everywhere. So we either start in early December and do a couple of strands at a time, or we invite close friends over for a light-hanging party. It's a nice way to have an intimate holiday celebration and also get decorating help! What I've gladly stopped doing: baking. I make one pie and then buy those pretty grocery store cookies. Or I'll ask my mom to send a big tin of my childhood favorites."-- Rhia Kuroda, a mom of one from Richmond, Vermont

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