7 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress

Find calm while you prepare for the holidays with this simple checklist.

Get ready for your big family dinner without running around frantically before guests arrive. / Shutterstock

The holidays arrive each November with the promise of good cheer. But, for many of us, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s can be overwhelming too, whether we’re hosting loved ones at home or battling crowds in stores. More than one in three adults feels seasonal anxiety or stress, according to the American Psychological Association. Its experts recommend mitigating angst by setting realistic expectations, volunteering in your community, and practicing self-care. One effective way to take care of yourself is to plan ahead and get certain tasks out of the way early, so you can find moments to relax and enjoy the season. Here’s how.

1. Decorate simply and safely.

Streamline decor.

Some people put up a themed tree in every room or cover their credenza with a Dickens Village. That’s wonderful, but it’s not for everyone. To add festive flair on a smaller scale, choose one highly visible area of focus. This could mean seasonally changing a mantle display or front door wreath. Another tip: Decorate before Thanksgiving with versatile items such as gourds, branches, and lights—and leave those out through the season.

Mind hazards.

Lighting candles is playing with fire. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that candles start two out of every five holiday blazes in homes. Use battery-operated tapers, tealights, and menorahs instead. If you buy a natural Christmas tree, invest in a stand with straps or clamps for additional stability. (Some stands even self-water!) Avoid decor that can be dangerous to children and pets, such as tinsel, glass ornaments, and baubles that resemble candy or other food. While the toxicity of poinsettias is exaggerated, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the plants can still sicken cats and dogs—as can mistletoe, holly, and many varieties of lilies.

Upgrade lighting.

Replace old and broken string lights with LEDs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LEDs use less power (taking roughly $10 off your electric bill per tree per season), don’t get as hot (reducing risk of ignition and burned fingers), are more durable (made with epoxy, not glass), last longer (up to 10 times as long), and are easier to install (more strings can be safely connected end to end).

2. Whittle your gift list.

Start a gift exchange.

Organize a system with your family and friends in which everyone agrees on a spending limit and each person shops for only one other. (You could draw recipient names and keep them secret to all but the givers.) Focusing on buying just one great gift frees up time and reduces financial burden. If you haven’t yet broached the subject with your loved ones, give it a go at the Thanksgiving table. For tech-savvy tribes, there are apps like Elfster to help organize an exchange.

Get creative.

Instead of objects, consider gifting consumables or experiences. Spread out the cheer with a gift subscription for a few monthly deliveries of pre-prepared meals, curated beauty products, or a coffee or wine club. Bonus: All you need to wrap is card announcing what’s coming. And gifts such as theater tickets or registration to a cooking class can become a treasured memory. AAA Members receive discounts on dozens of attraction tickets, from theme parks to rock concerts.

Embrace donations.

Generosity is the perfect antidote for stress. Discuss with your family what charities you’re most excited about, and divert your gift budget to those causes. Contact your local social services agency, food bank, or Salvation Army branch, for opportunities to “adopt” another family in your area, which can include delivering holiday meals and donating new toys to those in need.

Smart Tip: AAA Memberships can be purchased minutes before it’s time to open gifts.

Plan ahead to avoid lines at the store and at the Post Office.

Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

3. Send greetings and packages early—or electronically.

Make your own cards.

It’s never too late to ask a friend or relative with a quality camera—or smartphone—and a good eye to snap a few shots of the family. Upload your favorite(s) to a site such as Minted or Paper Culture and create a custom holiday card in minutes. (To save handwriting time, select free envelope addressing and upload a spreadsheet or your mobile contacts.) Even better: Wait until the chaos of the holidays has subsided and send a Happy New Year card or family update letter. 

Go digital.

An even faster and cheaper option is to send digital greetings. Sites such as Greenvelope and Paperless Post offer e-cards delivered via email. Some designs are animated, so the recipient can still experience “opening” the envelope.

Skip the line.

Need to send gifts? Remember that the Post Office isn’t the only place you can buy postage and mail packages. Most grocery stores sell stamps; just ask the cashier at checkout. Use this USPS tool to find approved postal providers and self-serve kiosks near you. USPS also offers free pickup when you ship Priority or Express Mail. FedEx, UPS, and mom-and-pop shipping shops are great alternatives too.

4. Get ready for company.

Make room.

Clear out your coat closet to accommodate guests’ jackets. Now is a good time to donate spare outerwear to people in need through organizations such as One Warm Coat. Burlington Coat Factory stores accept donations year-round in partnership with Warm Coats & Warm Hearts—and you’ll get a 10 percent off coupon in return. It’s also a good time to pass along toys and other gently used items.

Clean the kitchen.

Whether you’re hosting out-of-town guests for a week or friends for a soiree, you need the right tools and ample prep and storage space. Find and wash any special holiday serving dishes and glassware, purge expired items from the back of the fridge and freezer, replenish pantry staples, and clear clutter from countertops.

Check insurance and security.

No one wants to think anything could go wrong when hosting others, but it’s smart to be prepared anyway. Food allergies and icy walkways can result in unforeseen medical or legal expenses. Check your home insurance policy for personal injury coverage. And, while you’re at it, do a sweep of your home’s security and make any needed updates

Prepare desserts and other items ahead of time.

Lordn / Shutterstock

5. Set the menu.

Order items in advance.

Check with your neighborhood butcher or grocer about when to place your order for a turkey or ham, and add that date to your calendar if you can’t order it now. Unless you love to bake, save time by pre-ordering pies from a favorite bakery. If you’re hosting a meal, don’t be shy about asking guests to bring an appetizer or a side, so you can focus on the main dish—and still have time to enjoy their company.

Take stress off others.

When you’re grocery shopping, pick up a few extra nonperishable items for a local food bank. Look for donation bins at the front entrance during the holiday season or opportunities at checkout to chip in $1, $5, or $10 with your grocery bill to help fund meals for families in need.

Choose make-ahead recipes.

Plan to do most of the cooking yourself? Relieve stress by spreading out the work. Casseroles, soups, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and desserts can often be made at least a day before your big feast. In some cases, the extra time actually enhances the flavor. If you plan to decorate and exchange cookies, bake and freeze a few dozen a couple weeks before, so you can quickly add finishing touches later.

6. Plan holiday travel.

Book ahead.

Flying to another city this season? Don’t wait—most travelers book 28 to 60 days ahead of the holiday. You can set up airfare alerts through Google Flights or Kayak that will keep you up-to-date on pricing changes—or confidently pick one of the best days to fly and cross it off the to-do list. 

Leave extra time.

No one wants to make a Home Alone-style dash through the airport. Major holidays can bring unusual traffic and long lines to check-in counters and security. TSA recommends arriving at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international one to allow plenty of time to return a rental car or park, check in, go through security, and board. Not rushing may help you maintain a sense of calm—and if you have extra time, pull over in a quiet corner for a cup of tea or a chair massage.

Remember pets.

If you’d like to take Fluffy with you, check your airline’s policy. Otherwise, make arrangements for a sitter or boarding at least a month before. AAA Members receive a $30 credit when they sign up for, which connects you to local pet sitters for all animals, including cats, and dog walkers. 

Smart Tip: January is the start of “wave season,” when cruise lines offer special promotions for last-minute travel. While you’re in booking mode, get that spring or summer cruise locked down, too. 

Get your car ready for winter driving.

SunKids / Shutterstock

7. Get (your car) ready to roll.

Schedule a check-up.

Hitting the road in November or December? Few things are more stressful than coping with a breakdown on the way to a special occasion, so book routine car maintenance now. Ask your mechanic to check the tire tread and pressure, inspect the heater and windshield wiper blades, and top off the antifreeze.

Prep for winter weather.

Get your car waxed to protect your paint against salt, ice, sand, and snow. Check your in-car tools and supplies, and make sure they can withstand freezing temperatures. Add an ice scraper, warm blankets, gloves, and a bag of sand or non-clumping kitty litter (for traction if a tire gets stuck in snow) to your car emergency kit. Put on winter tires, if needed.

Check battery.

Car batteries often die in the colder months. Chilly batteries have reduced cranking power, and thicker motor oil makes it harder for the engine to turn over. This is especially common with weaker batteries, so if your car’s is older than three years, get it checked. (AAA Battery Service offers free on-the-spot testing and replacement, or head to a AAA Approved Auto Repair facility.)

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