Surviving the Holiday Merry-Go-Round

Last year, I could barely wait for January 2 to roll around. After two months of frenzied baking, shopping and decorating, it was such a relief to finally be able to relax and catch my breath. I love the holidays, but like most mothers, I sometimes get caught up in my own expectations of how things should be and in the process manage to become exhausted, cranky and exactly the opposite of how I want to be. As parents, we have enough responsibilities on our plate before adding the additional tasks of house decorating, dessert baking, holiday dinners, shopping and many others. It's no wonder we inexplicably dissolve into tears over the slightest incident this time of year. But here's a little secret ‹ we bring most of this stress on ourselves. We're the ones who want everything to be perfect. We're the ones who believe it's a bad reflection on our ability as a wife and a mother if the house isn't spotless, the desserts homemade, and the sheep costume for our son's school play sewn lovingly by hand. But we have the power to change. By keeping in mind a few simple facts, you can turn this holiday season into a success ‹ without the stress.

ACCEPT THE FACT YOU'RE NOT A MARTHA STEWART It's time to face the cold reality that your apartment or even your gingerbread house will never look like Martha's. Don't exhaust yourself trying to measure up to other people's standards. Last year, after our fully decorated Christmas tree fell over three times, I finally stopped even trying to straighten up the ornaments and lights. During the daytime it looked pathetic, but at night the brightly lit tree sparkled and no one even noticed the lopsided decorations.

THE CURRIER AND IVES CHRISTMAS OF YOUR CHILDHOOD EXISTS ONLY IN YOUR HEAD People tend to have either a distorted rosy view or distorted negative view of their childhood Christmases. If you fall into the former group, you're really in trouble because nothing can ever compare to the fantasy playing in your head. Let go of this idea and enjoy what you have today. Don't try to recreate your childhood or make up for a bad one. It's over and you can't go back. Lower your expectations and you'll find yourself much more relaxed. For a quick reality check, ask your siblings or parents to recollect your childhood's "perfect" Christmases. Chances are they weren't so perfect after all.

LEARN WHEN TO SAY NO ‹ AND WHEN TO SAY YES Don't feel as if you must accept every party invitation or agree to volunteer at school every time you're asked. Learn how to say no. On the other hand, when someone offers their assistance or help, such as clearing the table after a holiday dinner-say yes immediately. People don't offer to help unless they want to so don't be afraid to take them up on their offer. DON'T OVERSCHEDULE THE KIDS Maintaining your normal routine as much as possible is especially important if you have young children. A little excitement goes a long way with a child, so try to keep stimulus to a minimum. Even the best-behaved children suffer meltdowns if they're dressed up in uncomfortable clothes and shuffled from one event to another.

PRIORITIZE ACTIVITIES Call a family meeting and discuss which activities are really the most important to everyone. If you discover the kids actually hate being dragged to the annual performance of the Nutcracker, strike it from your list and put your time and money toward something else. Carve out time in your schedule for the family's favorites, and don't worry about the rest.

GET BACK TO THE BASICS If you ask your children what they liked best about the previous year's holiday season, most will mention a special activity the family enjoyed together ‹ not their gifts. Keep this in mind when you plan out the season. Focus your attention on people, not things.

BE THANKFUL Take time out in your busy schedule to count your blessings and remember the true meaning of the holidays. Teach your children to do the same. Involve your children in a least one charitable activity. Ask them to choose some of their toys and books for donation. If you have older children, spend an evening volunteering at a soup kitchen.

GO EASY ON THE GIFT-GIVING If you have a big extended family, suggest buying gifts only for the children this year, or place a dollar limit on the price for each gift. The other members of your family will probably be relieved by your suggestions.

LOOK FOR SHORT-CUTS Time is precious this time of year, so stay on the lookout for ways to save small increments of time. Use the Internet or catalogs for shopping. Give gift certificates. Bake two kinds of cookies instead of 10. My favorite secret time saver is to use packaged cake mixes for my German Chocolate and Italian Crème holiday cakes. After I add homemade icing, no one can tell the difference.

WARD OFF THE "GIMMEES" You can't really blame children for coming down with a bad case of the "gimmees" when they're constantly bombarded with ads for toys. If at all possible, limit or ban Saturday morning cartoons and throw away toy catalogs. Children don't beg for things if they don't even know they exist. For older children, explain that you've budgeted a certain amount for their gifts, and ask them to draw up a wish list based on that dollar amount.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF I know what you're thinking. Of course, you don't have the time, but if you want to keep your sanity, try to squeeze in 10 minutes a day for a walk or a bubble bath. Pay attention to your health. Eat right. Don't over-indulge. Exercise. Laugh with a friend. Lighten up.