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Real Secrets to Holiday Harmony

Make your holidays more meaningful -- and less harried -- with these solutions.

My large and lively Irish-Catholic family has always gone all out for Christmas. Our holiday gatherings for years included a raucous gift-exchange game, but with the birth of almost two dozen members of a new generation, it became a burden rather than a joy―a chaotic competition more for the grownups than for the kids. Last year, my cousin offered a solution: Each of us brought a toy for the local Toys for Tots campaign instead of the usual presents to swap. This way, the youngest generation got a lesson in sharing, the adults got more time for relaxed conversation, and we all experienced a more humble, heartfelt holiday.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple idea like this to infuse the season with a little more meaning and shake some of the stress out of it. Too often, this becomes the season of excess, packed with emotional overload, rich food, plastic Santa Clauses, and obligations―all of which threaten to obscure the spirituality at the core of the festivities. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Plenty of people all across the country have found innovative yet simple solutions to seasonal situations that really work. Earlier this year, we asked our readers to share their secrets with us. We've compiled the best of them here to help you as you grapple with all the gift shopping, tree trimming, cookie baking, and holiday partying to be done.

Halve everything
Just because you have a million invitations and chores doesn't mean you have to actually do them all, says Elaine St. James, author of the megaseller Simplify Your Life (Hyperion, 1997) and the brand-new Simplify Your Christmas (Andrews & McMeel, 1998). "Make a list of all the details that are important to you, from decorating to buying toys," she says. "Prioritize the list, then cut it in half―and just for this year, don't do anything on the bottom half of the list." While you're at it, she adds, try halving everything else as well: Buy half the gifts, spend half the money, send half the cards. St. James has found that the things left undone are rarely missed. "You need to take a stand and take back control," she says. "It's really empowering when you cut back on some of the holiday madness."

 Bake a cake
Cathleen French (left) of Laguna Beach, California, figured out a way to teach very young children that Christmas is about more than just toys: Every Christmas Eve, she and her four kids make a birthday cake for the baby Jesus. "It's a simple project, and it's something that my son Sam, who's 3, can comprehend," she says.

Cook, and they will come
We all crave the company of family and friends during the season. But come December, the sheer volume of social obligations can become overwhelming. It actually made Susan LaTempa's daughter sick.

"Each year, we were driving all over―to my mother's, to my mother-in-law's, and then to my father-in-law's, because they're divorced," says the California magazine editor. "When my daughter, who was 4 at the time, started getting nauseated every time we got in the car to go to the next place, we realized we'd had enough." Today, that daughter is a teenager who looks forward to the stay-at-home Christmas tradition born that day. "We ask people to come by, but we let them know that a rich, elaborate meal and serious entertaining are too hard on us," LaTempa says. "So we keep a big pot of chili on the stove, everyone comes to our house, and we have a great time."


Get creative with the calendar
Susan LaTempa also credits her mother-in-law for realizing the stress put upon families during the holidays. Her solution: Instead of having her Hanukkah party on the traditional day, she talks to everyone involved, looks for the least-overloaded date, and has the gathering then. No one seems to care that it isn't exactly when it's supposed to be―in fact, they appreciate the break.

Seek a change of venue
Have too many relatives to host at your house, all at one time? Rent a hall for Christmas Day, like Theresa Sansone did when her side of the family grew to about 30 people. "Everyone brings a dish, Grandpa brings a tree, and we make decorations with the kids during the party, which gives them something fun to do," says the Connecticut mother of two. "The children have room to run, and the grownups can sit and relax. We'll never go back to wrecking someone's house!"

Just say no
Dorothy Courage (right), a software programmer from Olympia, Washington, learned this lesson when life handed her a surprise: a son, now 7 years old, with a developmental disorder that makes him unusually sensitive to stress. "The holidays can be particularly difficult for him with the schedule changes and extra activities," Courage says. So she says no―a lot. "As long as you're honest with people, they always understand," she says. "It's OK to have limits. Simplifying has afforded us more time as a family, which I treasure because I'm a working single mom."

Try the trickle-in theory
Gayle Ottman, a therapist from Billings, Montana, says her four-generations-strong family switched from a sit-down dinner to a casual Christmas Eve buffet to help cope with growing families and hectic schedules. "People come when they can and bring a contribution for the buffet table," she says, "and everyone is more laid-back as a result." After years of trial and error, Joy Purcell of Palm Springs, California, collaborated with her in-laws, adult children, and nieces and nephews to make the annual holiday shindig a potluck dinner, with most of the dishes prepared (and the table set) a day ahead of time. "That way, we're free to get outside and play," she says―Purcell goes hiking with one group, while another has a tennis tournament. This active afternoon has become a bonding experience for cousins who don't get to see each other much. "By the time we all sit down to eat, everybody's comfortable together," she says. "And believe me, we've all earned our dinner."

Shop early―and often
"I don't go to department stores at all at Christmastime, which cuts the stress a lot," says Jerry Carlin (right), a poet and cook from Bainbridge Island, Washington. "I buy small gifts throughout the year at friendly shops, and I like to give edibles, like the fudge sauce from my favorite restaurant in San Francisco." When the summer berry crop hits, Carlin and his partner, Paul Holzman, also make up batches of jellies for holiday gifts.

Set a one-gift limit
Cheryl Dalie's very large Ohio family streamlined the season this way: "Each family makes one gift for each of the other families―and it's a gift we can all share," she says. One family might give a basket filled with ingredients for a spaghetti dinner, for instance; another, a decorative tin of assorted biscotti and a selection of gourmet coffees. You could also give the gift of exercise―a backyard badminton or volleyball set, for example.

Create a family tree
A burgeoning family can make gift exchanges challenging, if not stressful. When Gayle Ottman's threatened to turn into a swap meet, the family took action. "Our solution is for each of us to bring a wrapped tree ornament," she says. "Everyone has fun with this, and it doesn't cost too much for the young families. Without the long gift exchange, we have time to go caroling."