Christmas Countdown C -6

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Baked Spaghetti

My cousin, Mary would always prepare this dish for family gatherings. It is simple, filling and may be prepared ahead of time. I am able to expand this recipe as needed, enabling me to make more than one pan of spaghetti at a time. 

  • 12 oz pasta
  • 1 lb ground meat
  • 1 small onion, chopped (or ½ cup frozen chopped onions)
  • 2 small cans tomato sauce
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 2 cubes beef bouillon
  • seasoning as listed 

Preheat oven to 350. Brown ground meat. Drain and set aside.

Boil 1 ½ quarts water in a large stock pot. Add bouillon cubes and allow to dissolve. Add 1 tablespoon oil to boiling water. Add pasta. Stir to prevent sticking. Cook pasta until just tender.  DO NOT DRAIN.

Add tomato sauce and paste. Season with 1 tablespoon crushed garlic, 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, 1 tablespoon basil and salt and pepper. Blend thoroughly.

Add meat. Mix. Pour mixture into large flat baking dish. It will look sloppy. Top with mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

Bake one hour or until firm. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. Cut into squares.

Christmas Countdown C -7

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Happy Holiday  Hosting

Shaunna Privratsky

Holiday parties are festive, fun and bring together friends and families. But hosting one can become a nightmare. From the decorations to the last goodbye, there are so many things that can go awry; it is enough to make you pull a Scrooge and order takeout the entire holiday season.

Put down that phone!  Here are some easy hints on getting organized, picking the right menu and easy entertaining.

  1. The first step is to make lists. Start a holiday notebook. Write down guest lists, a menu, shopping lists for food, decorations and other party necessities. Being organized is half the battle.
  2. Simple = stress-free. Keep it simple with a few well-planned dishes instead of tons of unusual or fussy foods.
  3. Keep your guests in mind when planning the menu. Ask about food allergies and preferences like vegetarian diets, low-cholesterol, or sugar-free diets.
  4. Bite-size is best for easy appetizers. If serving a dipping sauce, provide individual serving containers to avoid “double-dipping.” 
  5. Ready at room temperature. If you don’t want to be constantly running back to the kitchen to heat things up, serve at least half of the food at room temperature or rent food warmers.
  6. Preparation is key. Do as much as possible ahead of time. Decorate, set the tables, add extra seating, cook ahead as many dishes as you can and your night will go much smoother.
  7. Be generous. It is better to have too much food and beverages than not enough. You can always send leftovers with guests or freeze them for an impromptu gathering another time.
  8. Stick with the season. Fruits and vegetables in season are cheaper and fresher, so use them in your dishes and even decor for a festive look.
  9. The decor sets the theme of your party, but don’t be overwhelmed. Simple ideas are votive candles tucked in pine branches nipped from a wreath or tree, a bowl of pinecones, or even elegant candles on a simple white or clear plate. Add extra bling with a gold doily or a bowl of bright Christmas ornaments.   
  10. Invite them right. Be specific about appropriate dress, the extent of food and beverages and the duration of the party. Setting these guidelines makes it easier for people to plan to have a wonderful time at your get together.
  11. Buffet style is best. It gives guests the freedom to help themselves and there is little for you to do, other than to replenish the food. Bring full platters instead of just adding items to a half-empty plate.
  12. Make sure there is plenty to drink, whether it is alcoholic or not. Provide at least a few beverage choices for guests and plenty of glasses. Most liquor stores offer free ice with a purchase, so don’t forget to stock up.
  13.   Music puts people at ease and helps the conversation flow. Depending on the crowd, soft jazz or classical music competes less than other types of music. This will set the tone for the evening, so choose your music in advance.
  14. Fill your home with the scents of the season. Make a large pot of apple cider on the stove, complete with cinnamon sticks. Have mugs and a ladle ready.
  15. Add a drop of peppermint oil to a burning candle. The minty smell will permeate the place and add a touch of spice.
  16. Warm up a batch of gingerbread and add it to the buffet treats.
  17. Keep track of everything in your holiday notebook. Note what worked, what didn’t and ideas on doing things easier next time. Yes, I said next time.

Oh, no!  Company is on the way and you haven’t had a chance to decorate. You search frantically for some snowman napkins or some leftover garland, but you come up empty. Before you start flinging Christmas-themed tissues around the room, take a deep breath and read these tips. Don’t worry – it is never too late to decorate.

Here are ten simple ways to get your home in the holiday spirit in a hurry. I’ve also included a bonus tip for each idea if you have a little more time. Most, if not all, can be accomplished with the things you have around your house.

1. Cut a few pine branches from the tree and place in a large vase, an old tin bucket or a big pitcher. Take the lower or hidden branches to avoid bare spots. Place in the center of the table.

Bonus tip:  Wrap the container with a cheerful ribbon.

2. Gather five to seven candles, preferably all in the same color for more impact. Red, ivory, white, gold or silver are festive holiday colors. Arrange on a fancy platter or large plate.

Bonus tip: Sprinkle Christmas potpourri or pinecones around the edge of the plate. Another option is a layer of sugar, to simulate snow.

3. Fill a large glass vase or clear jar with tiny Christmas balls. Pick a single color or mix and match.

Bonus tip: Place one ball by each plate with a personalized tag. Let them take it home as a parting gift.

4. Take a tall, cylindrical vase and put candy canes all around it. Hook the short end over the edge and let the long side dangle.

Bonus tip:  Put about a half pound of sugar into two bowls. Add a few drops of red food coloring to one bowl and stir until the sugar turns red. Now layer the white and red sugar in the vase to form stripes.

5. Place three matching presents in the center of the table. You can use the presents from under the tree, or wrap some empty boxes if you have time.

Bonus tip: Use matching tags as place settings. 

6. Take one of your large pictures down and wrap it in fancy paper. Re-hang.

Bonus tip:  Put a fancy ribbon over mirrors and doorways.

7. Turn the lights off and eat by candlelight and Christmas lights. For some extra dazzle, take a clear string of lights and wrap it around the centerpiece on the table. Make sure you unplug it when you’re finished.

Bonus tip:  Replace a few light bulbs in your lamps with colored bulbs. Red lends a cheery glow, while blue or green is very mellow.

8. Scatter a few holiday rugs around. Doorways, the foot of the stairs, in front of the sink, in the guest bedroom and bathrooms are all great places for a cheerful rug.

Bonus tip:  Pick up deeply discounted rugs and welcome mats during the after Christmas sales so you’ll be ready for next season’s festivities.

9. Put out a bowl of pinecones. Spray with non-stick spray, and then sprinkle with sugar. It will look like snow.

Bonus tip:  Simmer a small pot of apple juice or two cups of water and a cut up apple on the stove. Add a generous sprinkle of cinnamon. Your home will smell like an apple pie baking.

10. Set up a manger scene in an unexpected place like the dining room table, on the television stand or the coffee table. It will remind you and your guests of the true reason for the season.

Bonus tip:  Have the youngest child tell the Christmas story.

The next time you are crunched for time, just try some of these quick ideas. Even when you’re in crisis mode, it is never too late to decorate. Hey, isn’t that your doorbell?

Now that your guests have arrived, where do you put them?  Most of us don’t have enough space to designate a whole room for guests. Yet, even if you have many uses for the “spare” room, you want an inviting space for your visitors. You don’t have to spend a fortune to have the best for your guests.

First of all, there should be a sleeping area. Look for furniture that does double duty. For example, futons combine seating and sleeping into one package. Forget the old lumpy mattresses of the past. Today’s futon has graduated into many sophisticated styles and comfort levels.

A similar type sofa is the Klick-klack bed. It is available in a range of colors and fabrics to fit any décor and budget. The lines are sleek, the concept is simple: you select the position you want and click it into place.

A sofa-sleeper has all the practicality of comfortable seating, as well as a pull out bed. These come in all sizes, including twin, to fit any size room. The mattresses are sturdy and ensure a good night’s sleep for your guests.

Air mattresses can transform any open area into an extra bedroom. Most have built in air pumps that automatically inflate and deflate the mattress to the desired firmness. Add sheets, blankets and pillows and it is off to dreamland. One drawback is that it might be more difficult for some people to get up from such a low bed. The solution: the stores have air mattresses with built in feet, to raise the bed to normal height.          

To make your guest feel at home, provide a space for their belongings, whether it is a spare dresser, some closet space with lots of empty hangers, or a table they can tuck their suitcases under.

A lamp near the bed is a plus, so that they don’t have to have the main light on at all times. Make sure there are shades or curtains for privacy and to block out light. If you provide a television, put the remote in plain sight, with a copy of the current TV guide.

Now that you have provided the basics, here are some simple ways to add some flair to your guest room. Even if the room is not primarily for guests, a cohesive décor will give it that welcoming feel. Find a theme for the room, whether it is a soothing color scheme, an extension of your home’s décor, or based on a collection.

This could be the space you could have some fun with color. Try creating a focal point by painting one wall a vibrant color. Place the largest piece of furniture, probably the bed, futon or sofa-sleeper, against this wall. Flank it with nightstands or small tables. A simple wooden chair will do as well.

Add some artwork. You could make a collage of several similarly framed photos, or create your own masterpiece with a piece of canvas and some paint. You can frame it quite inexpensively at craft stores like Michael’s.    

Perhaps your guest room doubles as a storage area. To make it more inviting, organize your storage into shelves, cabinets or built-ins. To hide the clutter and add instant glam, hang some curtains or a coordinating sheet from the ceiling. I screwed two bike hooks into the ceiling, put two drapery panels onto a closet rod, and hung it in front of our pantry shelves.

Maybe your “spare” room is your hobby area. Organize it all into a nice cabinet, desk or dresser. Your space will be nice and neat for the next time your guests arrive, or when you want to start a new project.

A few finishing touches will add that special touch. A vase of fresh flowers, a small basket of trial size toiletries, even a bowl of fresh fruit all say: I’m glad you came. Try these decorating tips on for size. Remember: only the best for your guests.

With these tips, holiday hosting can be a wonderful experience. All it takes is organization, a plan and the desire to spread cheer. Here’s to your next hassle-free holiday party!

Christmas Countdown C-8

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Cookie Exchange

One of my favorite holiday traditions was baking cookies with my mother.  Each year, we made dozens of cookies for relatives, neighbors, friends and co-workers.  Once I had my own family, I worked to continue the tradition.  Unfortunately, my time was limited. I found the stress of doing too much was robbing me of holiday joy.

Many of us have this same problem.  The fantasy Christmas that plays in our head crashes into the reality of daily life and forces us to cut back on our activities.  While most of us have accepted the fact that we can’t do everything during the holidays, it seems a pity to eliminate baking homemade Christmas cookies from our to-do list.  Instead, invite 11 friends over for a cookie exchange. Each of you bake 12 dozen of your favorite Christmas cookies.

It is tempting to nibble your way through this event, sampling all the fabulous goodies everyone has brought to share. This is a very bad thing. Tasty but bad. Too often during the Holidays, we abandon good eating habits. We miss meals. We eat too much sugar. Well, you know what you (and I) are doing!

I think it is important to serve a simple, hearty and healthy meal during your cookie event. Soups, muffins, tea and hot cider are the perfect meal for a cold winter afternoon.

Menu

Soups

Butternut Squash

Chicken Noodle

Hearty Vegetable

Muffins

Corn Jalapeno

Pumpkin Cranberry

Apple Spice

Christmas Countdown C -9

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Holiday Buffet

During the holidays, most women have too much to do and too little time in which to do it.  Our hectic schedules make it next to impossible for us to get together with friends.  One way to solve this is to host an open house that features a buffet.  You might hold your open house on a Saturday, allowing your friends to stop in for a bite to eat between their errands.  Or you might choose to invite couples and families to your open house. 

Schedule the open house just before the fifteenth of December.  People get busier as it gets closer to Christmas. By scheduling your open house earlier in the month, your guests will not have to choose between invitations.

Decorate your home for your open house.  This helps set the tone for the party and gets everyone into the holiday mood.

Create a menu that saves you time and keeps your stress to a minimum.   A suggested menu with recipes follows.  The suggested dishes can be prepared ahead and cooked just before your guests arrive.  The menu also contains pre-made items that save you from spending all your time in the kitchen.  Remember, a successful party is not determined by the number of hours you spend in the kitchen.

To set up your buffet, you will need a long table for the food, a smaller side table for beverages and a third area for dessert.  If you do not have room for three separate tables, then place the desserts on the buffet table with the rest of the food.  It is more important to have a separate area for the beverages in order to ease congestion around the buffet table.

You may prepare your tables the morning of your open house.  This will save you time later in the day.   Cover your tables with tablecloths.  Choose a simple centerpiece for each table.  An arrangement of candles and small poinsettias works well.  The centerpiece should not be large since you need every inch of table space for food.

Put out your serving dishes and determine what you plan to serve on each dish.  Place a note on each serving piece to remind you, or to inform someone else, just what goes on that dish.  This will save you time and worry when you begin setting out food.   In addition, you should prepare folded mini-cards to labels each dish on the table.  This will let guest know what everything is on the table and save you from having to answer the same question over and over.

Lay out your table to the appetizers are on one end or one side of the table and the food for the main course is on the other.  Guests have a tendency to hover around the appetizers.  Set up a traffic pattern around your buffet table that makes it easy for people to serve themselves.

An open house allows you to invite more guests than you could for a formal dinner.  Unfortunately, most of us do not have enough dinnerware or flatware to serve everyone at once.  Rather than make guests wait while you run a load of dishes through the dishwasher, simply use disposable items for your buffet.  Yes, I am sure there are some people who will roll their eyes at your paper plates.  That is their problem.  Your goal is to hold a wonderful event and enjoy yourself at the same time.  Ease your stress.  Use disposable.

The suggested buffet menu has only 2 dishes that require cooking.  Each dish may be baked just before your guests arrive allowing you to serve them hot out of the oven.  Cheeses may be set out earlier, allowing them to soften slightly for easier cutting.  Prepare your beverage table, set out other food items, and lay out desserts.  As the pasta cooks, go take a bath and get ready for the party.

Just before people begin to arrive, turn on Christmas music, light the candles and set out the entrees.  Check your list and your table one last time.  Take a deep breath, pour yourself something to drink and prepare to attend your party.

Menu

Appetizers

Cheese platter

Assorted crackers

Assorted nuts

Tortilla Chips

Spinach dip

Dill dip

Vegetable platter

Entrée

Baked Spaghetti

Pasta Marinara

Tossed Salad

Hard rolls

Dessert

Cookie platter

Assorted breads

Tray of chocolates

Christmas Countdown C -10

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The Simple Joy of Holiday Entertaining

Entertaining in your home is an important part of the Holidays. Spending time with family and friends over great food is an incredible way to increase the joy of the season.

Unfortunately, most women I know groan when you mention Holiday entertaining. They are already tremendously stressed over the basic Holiday tasks that have been added to her enormous to-do list that she doesn’t know how she is ever going to get everything done. Who wants to add a party on top of that?

Well, if you do things the Simple Joy way, Holiday entertaining doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact, it can be very easy. The primary thing you must remember is:

Attend Your Own Party!

You should never invite friends over to show off.  Entertaining during the holidays is about relationships not about bragging rights.  Creating an atmosphere where guests are able to relax and enjoy themselves, you are able to move effortlessly through your guests with no stress, no fuss, no worry.

How is this possible? To begin the transformation, follow these three extremely easy steps…

Simplify, Sweetie!

To enjoy your holiday party, you must reduce the stress.  The easiest way to reduce your stress is to simplify your event.  Mommy was right, Sweetie, “Never bite off more than you can chew!”  To maintain a manageable level, follow these “simple” steps:

Simple Event

Plan a holiday event that fits well into the time you have to prepare.  There never seems to be enough time during the holidays and nothing brings on stress faster than a shortage of time.  Determine what you are able to handle and go with that.  Be honest with yourself.  Now is not the time to be Super Woman.

Simple Plans

Work smarter, not harder.  Once you decide the type of event you wish to hold, sit down with pen and paper to determine what needs to be done to prepare.  Spend your time creating your list, not running around aimlessly.  Save your energy for your party.

Simple Menu

Spending hours in the kitchen with a hot stove is simply wilting.  Plan a menu that offers dishes your guests will enjoy but will not wear you out.  You want to be with your guests at the center of the fun.  Choose dishes that can be prepared in advance or require little last minute work.  Or, follow the my Simple Joy example:  purchase pre-made dishes that only need baking or microwaving.  Remember, your guests came to see you, not your food.

Delegate, Darling!

You have chosen your event, developed a plan of action and selected your menu.  Now you need to decide who is going to do all the work.  What do you mean you thought you had to do the work?  No, no, no, darling, not when you take my advice:

Decide What Needs to Be Done

You have a plan of action.  Take the time NOW to expand on that plan.  Determine step by step exactly what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.  Break things down into very small parts if you need to.  Once you are satisfied with your list, copy it to a fresh piece of paper and keep it with you always… or at least until your party is over.

Determine What You Want to Do

With completed list in hand, study it very carefully.  What things do you want to do?  If you make great desserts, then you may want to save this activity for yourself.  If you REALLY like to clean your house, this may be the activity for you.  Pick and choose now before others get a crack at the list.

Delegate the Rest

Yes, you are actually going to ask other people to do things to help you get ready for your party.  Gee, what a novel idea!  Who are these people?  Friends, family and hired help.  You may hire a company to clean your house or cater the party.  Assign tasks to family members.  When friends and guests offer their help, accept!  Remember, your job is to attend the party.  Let others help.

Pamper, Pet!

The day of your party arrives.  Everything is going smoothly.  Now is the time for you to pamper yourself.  Take time for you so you have energy for your guests.  Here are just a few things you might do for yourself, Pet.

Take a Nap

Can’t have you nodding off in the middle of a conversation.  Don’t want any lines under your eyes.  Prevent this by taking a little nap before you get ready.  Even if you only have a short time, lie down for a few minutes.  Relax.    Smile and let all your care and tension drift away.  Prepare your mind to turn your energy from you to your guests.  Now, take a deep breath.  Let it out.  Open your eyes.  It’s time for your bath.

Take a Bath

The Queen never rushes through a shower when she prepares for a party.  Time to pull out all the Royal stops.  What better way than with a warm relaxing bubble bath.  Fill the tub with scented bath salts, light the candles, and turn on music to relax.  Then slide deep into the tub.  Lean back and let the last of your cares float away, Pet.  Not too long, though, you still need to get dressed.

Take a Breath

You’re ready.  The food is waiting.  The music is playing.  The house is perfect.  The doorbell rings.  Wait!  Not just yet.  Take a deep breath.  Now smile.  No, a big warm smile and go greet your guests.  The #1 guest (YOU) is in the house!

Christmas Countdown C -11

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Almond Eggnog Pound Cake

  • 2 tablespoons soft butter
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 package yellow cake mix
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups eggnog
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 teaspoons rum extract

Generously grease a bundt pan or tube pan with soft butter. Press almonds against the buttered sides and bottom; set pan aside.

Christmas Countdown C-12

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Have Yourself a  Low-stress Little Christmas!

During the Holidays, many of us are guilty of procrastinating. We put things off until the last possible moment, filling ourselves with anxiety as we scramble to get everything done. Each year, we promise ourselves we will be better organized THIS year and each year it’s the same. Holiday tasks come rushing at us leaving us standing frozen like a deer in the headlights.

Why do we do this to ourselves year after year? I believe most of us have good intentions of doing better every year but unfortunately, we become overwhelmed by everything we have to get done for the Holidays. Our to-do list seems endless and  makes it impossible to know just where to begin. We flit from one task to another, never quite completing anything. Or, we become immobile, unable to motivate ourselves to take on even the simplest task. How can we overcome these feelings and begin to enjoy the Holidays once again?

You should begin by saying the following words over and over again, “Work smarter, not harder!” Take the time to sit down and develop a strategy for the Holiday season. Do not do another thing on your list until you begin to follow the 6 steps listed below:

1.   Distinguish between “have to” and “want to:”  It is difficult to motivate yourself when you feel there is so much you “have to” get done for the Holidays. How many of these things are really “have to’s” and how many are “want to’s?” A number of years ago, when our daughter was in grade school, I was overwhelmed by everything I felt I had to get done before Christmas arrived. I couldn’t get motivated to do anything. Then I had an idea. I sat down and made 2 lists. On one, I put everything that really had to be done by Christmas morning. I tried to be realistic and only list things that, if not done, would truly spoil Christmas. On the second list, I put everything else, the tasks I only wanted to get done. When I was finished, I only had ONE item on my “have to” list. I needed to buy our daughter’s presents. She was still young enough that I knew Christmas would be spoiled if I didn’t have her presents ready by Christmas morning. Everything else on my list was something I only wanted to do. I didn’t have to put up the Christmas tree. I didn’t have to send out Christmas cards. Well, there were a lot of things I didn’t have to do. Once I gained that perspective, the process became easier. I felt the pressure being lifted from me and I got to work. I organized my “want to” list and one by one, I whittled each task away. By the time Christmas morning arrived, I had completed every item on both lists without the stress. Take the time to create 2 lists. Be brutal. You may have more than 1 item on your “have to” list but it should still be a small enough list that you can tackle it easily. Then, organize your second list and get to work.

2.   The calendar is your friend: This time of year, we see the calendar as our enemy. Each day it reminds us how little time there is left to prepare for Christmas. Do not see the calendar as your enemy, make it your friend. Once you have prepared your 2 lists and then organized your longer “want to” list, grab your calendar and begin to plan. Write in all the scheduled events, like the kids’ school programs, the church Christmas event, holiday parties, etc. Next, study your list and schedule a deadline for certain events: mailing Christmas cards, mailing packages, decorating the house, shopping, etc. Make sure you write tasks in pencil. No need to add to your stress level by setting arbitrary deadlines in pen. Pace yourself by spreading out tasks throughout the month.

3.   Let the list be your guide: I am a great maker of lists. It is too easy for tasks to fall through  the cracks during the non-holiday part of the year. This time of the year, it can be overwhelming. Therefore, I make a list. In fact, I make multiple lists. I have a master list of everything I want to get done for the holidays. I have a daily list of the 5 and only 5 things I need to do for that day. I have my Christmas shopping list with everyone and their gift ideas listed. I have a grocery list for everyday items and the various lists for any entertaining I am doing. These lists go everywhere with me. I never know when I might see a gift I can purchase or have a chance to pop into a grocery store to pick up a few things. I have the lists clipped together so I can easily refer to them. I do not let the lists intimidate or overwhelm me. They allow me to calmly plan things in the quiet and comfort of my home. They help me stay on top of things. Most important, they give me a sense of control. When you plan ahead and make your lists, you control the Holidays, they do not control you.

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4.   Give yourself the gift of “no:” One of the reasons we become overwhelmed at Christmas is the added burden of Holiday tasks piled on top of our already full to-do list. Unfortunately, everyone else around us has a lot to do and some of these people are looking for unwary individuals upon whom they can thrust one (or more) of their tasks. They may not mean to burden you but they do burden you just the same. You must learn to say “no” to these request. At the very least, you need to get something in return for doing the task. For example, if your husband asks you to pick up a gift for someone in the office, you need to have him take one of your tasks. Explain in a calm tone that you are also very busy during the Holidays and, in order to do one of his tasks, you need him to take one of yours. Everyone only has 24 hours in a day. This means we are only able to do so much in the course of a day. To have time to do his task, you need something removed from your list. For both of you, time is valuable. Be respectful of each other’s time. Keep in mind, there are other times when you must just say “no.”  Take a moment to consider whether or not you really have the time to do the requested task. If not, say so. You do not owe anyone an explanation. If you are unable to do one task, you might offer to do another but only if you have the time. You owe this gift to yourself and you deserve it.

5.   Allow others to help: We often think everything must be done by us. However, there are all sorts of people able and willing (or at least easily swayed) to do tasks for us. Some of these people are family and friends. Some of these people can be hired, like a cleaning service to come in and give your home a thorough cleaning for the Holidays. Nowhere does it say Mom must do everything. If no one offers to help, then ask. Women often feel men should know they need help. Men believe women will ask if they need help. We are both making assumptions. Mr. D. always tells me to speak up if I need help. Getting your family to help you also gives them a better respect for all you do to prepare for Christmas.

6.   Take care of yourself: This is the most important thing of all. Most women I know develop terrible colds or other ailments right after the new year begins. I believe this is often caused by the lack of care we give ourselves in December. Take simple basic steps to care for yourself during the holidays. Drink lots of water. Eat more balanced meals. Cookies and fudge just done’t cut it. Get plenty of rest. At least once a week, I climb into bed with a good book about 8:00. I may read for hours or fall asleep before 9:00. I find my body needs the rest. In addition, get some exercise every day. I like to go for a walk or ride my bike. This gives me time to plan my day, or the next day if I go out in the evening. It also clears my head. I also like to pray while I walk, helping me maintain perspective on the season.

Christmas is a fabulous time of the year, too fabulous for us to be wishing it over. Take a few simple steps to get a handle on the holidays and you can truly have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Christmas Countdown C -13

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Keeping Kids Happy during the Holidays

Shaunna Privratsky

The radio plays continuous Christmas music.  The stores suddenly sprout six extra rows of decorations and triple their ads.  Tension builds into a frenzy of buying.   For many of us, the holidays herald feelings of dread.  Did you know that kids can get stressed out by the holidays, too?

Children of all ages anticipate special occasions.  Some have built up the fantasy of a “perfect” Christmas so much that they are in for a big disappointment when the day finally arrives.  As parents, we can do a lot to help kids have a great holiday season full of memorable moments.

Stop the stress with some of these simple strategies.  First of all, sit down and make a list, preferably with your child.  List all the activities your family does and maybe some new ideas, also.  Now look at each item and ask these questions.

1.  Are there some traditions your family has outgrown or no longer appreciates?  We used to visit Santa’s village every year, but last year both children decided they were too old.  We still went and enjoyed a horse-drawn hayride, though.

2.  Are you too meticulous in your decorating?  Kids love to get in on decorating, so put on some cheerful holiday music and let them help. 

3.  Can you spend less on gifts?  Before you step foot in a mall, decide on a reasonable budget.  Make kids a part of it by having them choose one to five things they really want, and then surprise them. 

4.  Can you skip some events or obligations?  If driving six hours to Aunt Millie’s house every year brings groans of dismay and relentless squabbling in the car, why not invite her to your house?

5.  Could you assemble store-bought bakery goods instead of baking? You can get the whole family involved in making fancy cookie trays, even if you don’t bake them yourselves.  An easy idea is to arrange assorted cookies or treats on a fancy paper plate, wrap in cellophane and tie with a festive ribbon.  Attach tags with “Assembled with love” or other cute sayings.

6. How do you keep boredom at bay?  Children usually get a long break from school.  The trouble comes when too many hours of free time overwhelm them.  They quickly tire of all their new toys and gifts and you are faced with grumpy kids.  One idea is to put them to work.  Instead of waiting until January, have them help un-decorate the house.  Offer incentives and rewards.  You can also schedule fun activities, but don’t overdo it. 

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7.  Have you heard the saying that visiting relatives are like fish?  Nice when they’re fresh, but they start to stink after too many days.  Try to schedule shorter holiday visits and provide some familiar toys and games to keep kids occupied.  Renting movies is an inexpensive activity that all ages will enjoy.

8. Give the gift of time.  Most children would rather spend some fun time with their family than get heaps of over-priced presents.  Schedule some “down” time and just have fun with your kids.

9.  Help kids focus on the spirit of giving, instead of getting.  When they start to experience the joy of helping others, they will truly understand the reason for the season.

A lot of stress is caused by unrealistic expectations.  Remembering past holidays through the rose-tinted glasses of memory can leave your family feeling flat or disappointed when events don’t measure up.  Relax!  Plan doable activities that everyone can participate in and even if a few things go wrong, your attitude is 90% of the battle.  Years later, it is the “disasters” that we  recall with a chuckle or a groan, not the uneventful days.

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Kids aren’t the only ones that get stressed out over the holidays.  Are you filled with excitement, brimming with plans, or do you stay awake at night, worried about money, menus and meddling family members?  Avoid these common holiday problems by planning ahead and you’ll be ringing in the New Year with smiles instead of frowns.

1. Bulging Budgets – Gift lists a mile long, rising gas and grocery prices, party supplies, postage, decorations; everything costs more at Christmastime.  Keep your budget in check by reining in spending and planning ahead.  Try to spread out your gift buying over several paychecks, to ease the strain on your wallet.  Pare down your gift list to just the kids, or draw names for extended family members.

2. No room at the Inn – All the relatives want to visit, but you have nowhere to put them!  Instead of turning them away, pick up some inexpensive air mattresses.  These make incredibly comfortable beds, especially on top of flat surfaces like a futon or Klick-Klack sofa.  They even make old-fashioned sleeper sofas actually comfortable!  Deflated, the air beds take up a tiny amount of space until the next visit.  Spruce up your decor with fresh pillows, seasonal decorations and scented candles.  The Dollar Store is filled with clever and useful items that only look expensive.

3. Don’t go cold turkey!  Have you ever forgotten to unthaw the turkey?  Start three days before by placing the bird in the refrigerator.  Use an oven bag with a tablespoon of flour, in a drip-free pan for fool-proof cooking.  Bake for 3 1/2 hours at 325 degrees, then let sit for 1/2 hour before carving.  Some grocery stores even offer unthawed birds, but at a premium price.  You could also serve several smaller Cornish game hens, which cook up in a fraction of the time, provides plenty of legs for the kids and has less clean up afterwards.   

4.  Multiple Menus.  What if one of your guests is a vegetarian or needs a no-salt diet?  The best thing is to plan ahead.  Ask the person to provide menus or bring some of their own food.  You can be accommodating, but don’t become a slave to someone else’s lifestyle.  Another solution would be to eat out, where there are plenty of options for the pickiest eaters.

5. Don’t get caught in the breakdown lane – Keep your ride rolling with regular oil changes and maintenance.  Jiffy Lube offers free computer checks if your red Service Engine Soon light comes on, and also checks your tire pressure for free.  The proper inflation is printed on the inside jamb of the driver’s door.  Inflating tires slightly higher helps with traction in heavy snow, and also improves gas mileage.   

If you do need service, try to call around for the best rates or even bring in coupons.  Most stations will price match or work with you on a payment plan.

6. Don’t go postal – Do your shipping as early as possible.  Each day you delay makes the prices go up and the lines get longer.  Online shoppers have an advantage: free shipping on holiday gifts at most online retailers.  You can ship the item right to the recipient, cutting out the costly middleman.

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7. The weather outside is frightful – holiday traveling can be as perilous as Santa’s sleigh in a blizzard.  Invest in trip insurance so if Nature messes up your plan, you can get a refund or rebook without costly fees. It is better to be safe than sorry; so allow plenty of time for travel and arrive alive.  Also, it pays to have a Plan B, because we all know how fast our plans can go awry.

8. Meddling Relatives – The holidays often bring the whole family together, along with old grudges, nosy questions and uncomfortable topics of conversation.  Instead of being the Grinch, use these clever coping strategies for getting out of uncomfortable moments:

a. Say, “Thank you for your input” to criticism. 

b. Or, “That’s a difficult subject I would rather not discuss.”

c. Stick to “safe” topics; the weather, the food, sports.

d. Practice avoidance.  “Oh, I forgot something in the car.”  Or step outside for a breath of fresh air.  Or you can always hide in the bathroom until the dessert course.

Not all of these ideas will apply to you and your family.  The key is to prioritize your list and only do the things that add to your happiness.  So this year, take a deep breath and vow to eliminate stress.  Give yourself permission for a smaller to-do list.  The holiday season is not about how much you get done, but about the warmth of the spirit and the love of family and friends.  Make this your family’s happiest holiday ever!

Shaunna Privratsky is a full time author. She lives in North Dakota with her family and is happily looking forward to a new year. Visit The Discount Diva at http://shaunna67.tripod.com/id21.html

Christmas Countdown C -14

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Holiday Open Office

Twice, I have had jobs that were very intense during the holiday season.  The number of hours I needed to spend at work made it impossible for me to either attend or host any holiday parties  This was very painful for me since I love both Christmas and entertaining.  I finally realized the long hours spent at work did not mean I could not celebrate the holidays.   If I had to spend the holiday season at work, then I would hold the party at work.  Instead of hosting an open house, hold an open office! 

I designed a celebration that would not cause me any additional stress.  My goal was to enhance my holiday joy and the joy of my co-workers.  I began by decorating my office for the holidays, including a small tabletop tree complete with lights.  I set up a narrow four foot table and covered it with a paper tablecloth.  I bought more than one tablecloth in case so I had replacements when one was stained or torn.  I brought in my holiday platters, baskets and bowls for my serving dishes and added green and red paper napkins, cups and plates.

During the holidays, so much of the food brought in to share at work is very sweet and high calorie.  We tend not to eat well during the last few weeks of December.  I decided to offer more substantial food.  The buffet featured chips, salsa, dip, crackers, a variety of cheeses, cookies, and sparkling cider. As you see, I did include a few sweet items to round the selection out.

I bought most of the items for the small buffet, making only one or two things myself.  I bought enough food to last 3-4 days, holding back a few fresh items for each day so the food did not look picked over by the last day.  I was able to set everything up in 10-15 minutes and it took about the same amount of time to clean everything up before I went home. 

I turned on Christmas music, opened the door wide and invited anyone who wandered by to enjoy the buffet.  While the open office will never win first prize in a Holiday Party competition, it helps reduce stress and increase joy during a busy time of year at work.

Suggested Buffet Items:

Cheese Platter

• Brie

• Herbed Brie

• Cheddar

• Gouda

• Smoked Edam

• Cheese Ball

Crackers

• Wheat

• Rye

• Club

• Pepper

Assorted Nuts

Tortilla Chips

Dips

• Salsa

• Guacamole

• Dill Dip*

• Spinach Dip

• Shrimp Dip

• Crab Dip

Cake Platter

(I purchase specialty loaf cakes at an import store)

• Amaretto

• Rum

• Pumpkin/Cranberry Bread

• Banana Bread

Small Plate of Chocolate Seashells

Platter of Assorted Cookies

Sparkling Cider

Dill Dip

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup mayo
  • 2 teaspoons dill
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried onion

Mix. Chill. Serve in bread bowl with the pieces of bread taken out of the bowl.

Christmas Countdown C -15

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Family Service Project

Every child will tell you how much better it is to receive at Christmas! Not that I think kids are greedy. It’s just so exciting to find all the things Santa has brought when Christmas morning dawns. However, not everyone is joyful at Christmas. Many people are lonely without family to celebrate the Holiday season with them. Many families don’t have the resources to give their children gifts at Christmas. Many children spend Christmas in the hospital, some miles away from home.

There are so many things families can do to brighten the Holidays for the lonely or the children that might not otherwise receive a gift. Things that can encourage children & families battling illness this Christmas.

This week-end, do a search in your community for projects that need help. I really think it is important not to simply buy some gifts & drop them off at a distribution center. Kids need to be involved in the work that goes into providing a Merry Christmas to those in need, those who are alone, those away from home. Let the family decide which group they want to help, then find out how you can volunteer. It might be packing food boxes to be delivered before Christmas. It might be going to nursing homes to sing Christmas carols & deliver cards. There are so many ways we can bring the joy of Christmas to those alone in the dark. This year, let’s shine the light of Christ’s love in our communities with those that are searching in the darkness. It’s a gift for the whole family to enjoy.

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