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Your Holiday Survival Guide

How to stress less this season.

With the holidays fast approaching, there's no better time than now to consider ways to make them less taxing and more enjoyable. Experts offer these tips.

Embrace the Challenge. Instead of getting tense just thinking about all you have to do, remember that "good things are stressful," says Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic. That doesn't mean you have to carry the whole load. "You might say to your family, 'We're heading into a stressful period. Let's talk about everyone's expectations and responsibilities and how we can make things go more smoothly.'"

Lower the Bar. Believing our celebrations should be perfect is "a huge source of stress," says Judith Sills, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia. "We measure ourselves against these iconic images, and we fall short. You expect your relatives to gather around the table in a loving way. And, instead, an uncle is drunk, and your daughter's boyfriend is wearing a Hooters hat." Bea's advice: "Remind yourself that nothing ever goes exactly right in real life. Nothing is ever perfect, and it doesn't have to be."

Set Limits. If you don't have time to cook the big family dinner, "you're allowed to say no," says Dorothy Cantor, a psychologist in Westfield, New Jersey. The same goes for running around, trying to spend equal time with competitive parents and in-laws, or traveling long distances to obligatory family gatherings. You're permitted to say you can't make it, explain why, and suggest an alternative that works for you, says Cantor.

Scale Back. Baking, decorating, and making gifts are fine things to do—if you have time. If not, they can increase stress, says Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Concerned that the kids will be disappointed if you skip making the gingerbread house? Professional organizer Brenda McElroy, of Fresno, California, suggests asking family members which traditions they do and don't cherish. "Because you might think something is special, but the kids might say, 'Not really.' If you can identify the non-negotiables, you can make them your priority and ease up on others."

Shift Focus. Your son doesn't want to wear the tie you gave him to church? Ask yourself what's more important: what he wears or that he goes. "Maybe, this year, in addition to picking traditions, you can pick your battles," says Sills. Bea suggests consciously focusing on everything that goes right instead of wrong. Acknowledging when people please us (thanking your son for attending services) "changes our brain chemistry," says Bea, and constitutes a gift that "makes others feel better in lasting ways."

Curtail Commercialism. In one 2002 study, Kasser and a colleague found that the more people focused on family and religion during the holidays and the less on buying and receiving gifts, the happier they were. Strategies for reducing spending abound: buying only for young children, drawing names, setting spending caps, giving gifts of time or services, donating to charity. Be careful, though. First make sure everyone's on board with the change, or spotty adherence could cause stress. If your whole extended family always exchanges presents, shortening your list could also backfire. Gift-giving affirms ties, says Kasser. You don't have to give lavishly, but you probably "do need to give something." Finally, if you're hoping to receive a certain gift, say so, advises Sills. It's unfair to expect loved ones to read your mind.

Count to 10. Remember, when things get tense, there's a difference between being happy in the moment and feeling you're doing something meaningful. Both are important, says Kasser, "but they involve different processes, and it might be that making meaning is what the holidays are more about." Unpleasant moments will always be part of the mix, says Sills. "It's love, affection, joy, stress, disgruntlement, disappointment. The fact that we can feel all that and still sit down together and celebrate is what makes us family."


Rachael Ray Meets Charles Dickens

Want to put a little teacher spin on your holiday gatherings? How about combining your two loves: A good book and an easy-to-make appetizer. If you can spell hors d'oeuvres, you can handle these three recipes.

The Nutcracker: You know the famous ballet, but maybe not the original E.T.A. Hoffman story. (We like the 2001 children's edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak.) With its inspiration, try making spiced nuts. First, beat one egg white until foamy' then add two cups of nuts, a quarter-cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of assorted spices. (Cayenne and cinnamon? Maybe a little cumin?) Spread on a greased baking sheet and bake in a 325-degree oven for about 20 minutes, stirring often.


The Christmas Carol: The Cratchits had a Christmas goose, and so shall you. Try this recipe from—take 8 ounces of fresh foie gras, cut into 1-inch pieces, and sauté in a very hot pan for about 5 minutes. Let cool, then give it a whirl in your food processor while slowly adding a quarter-cup of apple brandy and 8 ounces of room temperature butter. Mix until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill for at least two hours and serve with toast and apple slices.

Ethan Frome: The 10th-grade English teachers at your table might stare for a second and then go, "Oh yeah!" (Everybody else will wonder if you left your mind in your grade book.) Here it is, the most brilliant literary appetizer ever (and certainly the simplest): One plate of pickles and one plate of doughnuts. And let's hope your winter party ends better than theirs.

 Photo: Meiko Arquillos

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How I…Save the Planet

The holidays may be a perfect time for a service learning project—a little reminder that we don't live alone on this island. This time, your turn. Check out Earthwatch Institute at, an organization that aims to engage people—like you—in scientific research that will help save this planet. On a recent trip for educators only, Sarah Durfee, an Oregon science teacher, put on her waders in the North Cascades of Washington to map and record conditions in streams along the Continental Divide to help find out if they could sustain salmon. "It was one of the most interesting things I've done—and I've previously done a lot of wilderness stuff for work and play," Durfee said. What's more, she can use these lessons in her classroom.