We've all been learning to get along with less for quite some time now, and for many of us, this holiday season will be no exception.
But not all the lessons of less are ones of deprivation. Sometimes less can be liberating.
Maybe you can afford to send cards only to your very dearest friends, but now there's time to personalize them. Maybe you bake only two favorite cookie recipes instead of feeling compelled to churn out 10. And did you really enjoy dashing out of one party so you could show your face at another and another?
Overeating, overspending and overstressing are so last decade. With four weeks until New Year's Day, we offer a day-by-day guide to raising the comfort-and-joy factor. Now download some seasonal music, or tune the car radio to one of those all-carols-all-the-time stations, and let the fun begin — really.
Have a family meeting to plan the next few weeks. Who needs cookies or a costume or a grab-bag gift, and when? Get rehearsals, performances, invitations on the calendar. Make choices: Nutcracker or Messiah? If family finances limit gift-giving more than usual, explain to the kids what they can expect.
Build in some de-stress time for yourself. Make your first holiday purchase a $10 coffee-shop gift card, then use it up during the holidays. A nonfat cappuccino at Starbucks is just 60 calories. Order up, sit down, give your weary self a break.
Ladies, your gal pals are as overbooked as you are. Postpone the girlfriend gathering until January. Then celebrate Hot Tea Month with a tea party, or make Secret Pal Day, Jan. 11, the date for your get-together.
If your kids are going out on their own — college graduation, first apartment, first married Christmas — let them choose some of their favorite ornaments from the family collection. Give a tree-topper star or angel or a menorah to acknowledge they're starting their own homes and traditions.
Buy a string of mini candy canes or a bag of Andes peppermint crunch candies or some chocolate gold coins and hand them out wherever you go: the checkout clerk at the supermarket, the toll taker, the stressed-out person in line behind you. Smiles, decreased tension and peace on Earth will follow.
Shopping online? Check shipping costs. Is it always free, or only on certain days, or on certain merchandise, or with a minimum purchase? Keep track of who's offering what at freeshipping.org. And note that 1,000 merchants are participating in Free Shipping Day on Dec. 17.
Check the Times for free holiday concerts at churches. If you need some spiritual sustenance but a formal worship service is too intimidating, this is a low-pressure way to enter a church, sit and listen.
Party night? Spend your calories on seasonal specialties, not the chips you can eat anytime. A glass of wine is about 100 calories; mulled wine, 200; beer, 150; an eggnog with rum, 370 . . . and every drink makes it harder to resist the hot crab dip. Stick with water or diet soda, or alternate alcoholic drinks with non.
Who has a copy of Mom's recipes, the must-have dishes family members want every holiday? Get her to share them, then make copies for everyone and you've got the start of a family cookbook. Add a few more every year.
Does the office feel like one long party this month? If your co-workers keep bringing in cookies, banana bread, candy and more, protect yourself. Pack your own low-calorie snack so you can nibble along at coffee break. Run an errand to another department when the goodies are unveiled. Take the stairs, not the elevator. Walk at lunchtime. Your weight goal this month: maintenance.
Cool weather may be with us for weeks to come. Stock up on body lotion and lip balm and use them before wind and dry air start to leave you chapped and raw. Don't skimp on sunscreen, and while you're at it, restock cold remedies so you're prepared at the first sneeze.
Lots of new stuff could be about to come into the house, so get rid of some old stuff to make room: toys the kids no longer play with, outgrown clothing and accessories. Friends or thrift shops will appreciate what you're ready to part with.
Hire an unemployed friend or a college student to help with party setup and cleanup or to take over gift-wrapping chores. Don't buy into the media hype about "a holiday to remember" or "your best Christmas ever." Who needs that performance pressure?
Why put all the burden on Dec. 24 and 25? Maybe they'll just be average, and that's fine. Your happiest holiday memory may be the evening you spend with the family and a bowl of popcorn watching It's a Wonderful Life, or sitting on the deck watching the sunset. Let the magical moments find you — and appreciate them.
Instant decor: Buy two dozen balloons at a party store (perhaps all red, green, gold or silver). The impact is great when guests arrive, it's a lot cheaper than a big floral display, and nothing says festive like balloons.
If you overindulged at a party last night, make this a light-eating day, and work in a walk or a bike ride. Go to the beach and remind yourself why we live in Florida.
Delegate, delegate, delegate. Let teens program the music for the big family dinner. Anyone with a driver's license can pick up visitors at the airport or make store pickups. Let guests bring side dishes or desserts.
Sign up to help in January at a soup kitchen or shelter. Everyone wants to volunteer at Christmas. A month from now the kitchens are desperate for help, when it's colder and lines of needy people grow longer. Soup kitchens get lots of canned goods; donate a grocery-store gift card so the cook can buy fresh food.
Is there someone you miss, someone you've hurt, someone who has meant a lot to you? Take five minutes and one postage stamp and write to say what's on your heart and mind. A handwritten note has an impact e-mail can never match.
Nowhere in the Book of Christmas does it mandate that holiday dinners offer a lavish appetizer spread, six side dishes and three desserts. No one is going to starve because you didn't offer mashed, sweet and scalloped potatoes, or because you didn't serve cookies, two pies and a 513-calorie-per-serving white chocolate mousse with pomegranate granita (bonappetit.com, if you must). Re-examine your holiday menu and trim out surplus sides.
Minimal effort, maximum treat for Santa (or his helpers): slice-and-bake cookies. One to try: Ice Box Bakery's tart cherry pie cookies; $4.99 a roll at Fresh Market. To drink: Swiss Miss Dark Chocolate Sensation, at 150 calories a serving, is a Consumer Reports best buy; $1.99 for an eight-serving box.
Light a candle. Watch a star. Say a prayer. Say "Thank you." Say "I love you." Smile. Let someone else go first. In this season of giving and getting, forgive and forget.
Take pictures of your decorated home so you can remember next year what went where. Don't forget exterior photos. When it comes time to sell the house, warm potential buyers' hearts with visions of what their holidays could look like.
Schedule your 2011 wellness appointments: dental and eye checkups, a visit to the dermatologist, your well-woman or well-man exam. If your doctor thinks it's time for a mammogram or a bone scan, or a colonoscopy, get them on the calendar.
Give the house a new-year's inventory. Are your bath towels looking frowsy? Buy one set a month until you've replaced them. Is this the year to rewallpaper the kitchen? Schedule the paperhanger now. Time to redo a growing-up child's bedroom? Put it on the calendar for your boy's or girl's birth month.
Learn to prepare a new cuisine in 2011: vegetarian, Indian, Thai, Mexican. Find a cookbook, stock your pantry with basic ingredients, and cook your way through the book. In six recipes you'll feel at ease; in a dozen, you'll be an expert.
As you pack up the decorations, set aside those you've stopped using (no room, wrong color, don't like) and arrange a swap party with friends. Or pass items on to charity resale shops.
Call somebody you care about. Even if you update each other regularly on Facebook, pick up the phone. End the year a little closer to someone who's important to you.
Jan. 1, 2011
Do a couple of easy things today — between bowl games, maybe? — to start the year off right. Go for a walk. Eat some fruit. Sweep out the garage. Water the plants. Make a healthy, low-cost, stress-free beginning to a bright new year.