A Down-to-Earth Christmas

If there are weeks between you and December 25 and you're already stressed out, you may be in need of a more down-to-earth Christmas. As early as October, when the Christmas decorations begin to make their way to the store shelves, we start a mental countdown to Dec. 25. How much time do we have left for shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating, attending parties and helping others? The list is endless, and it seems to get more overwhelming as the years go on.

It's no wonder that by December 24, when we realize we forgot to charge the camera batteries, we're fit to tear our hair out. Isn't this the year to stop, take a breath and make a vow to slow down and really enjoy the holidays?

Make a list of everything you want to get done. How many of those things are longstanding obligations that no one enjoys anymore? How much of what you do every year is just because you've always done it? What can you cut out of your list of things to do?

Think about what kind of Christmas experience you want your family to have. To your pared-down list, add some old-fashioned, traditional holiday pastimes that will carry their own weight in the joy they'll bring.

Start early and slow down
The worst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas can be traced back to rushing to finish in time, whether it be shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating or keeping up with social obligations.

It's hard to shop with the Christmas spirit in October, but the earlier you start, the more fun you'll have shopping for those last few items on December 23. Make Halloween your kick-start to holiday shopping. Do your baking in advance and freeze your cookies. Use last year's leftover wrapping paper to get a jump-start on this year's wrapping.

Make homemade Christmas ornaments
You don't have to reinvent the entire Christmas tree. Just pick one ornament project that everyone in your family can take part in and make a dozen of them. Gathering the whole family around the kitchen table to make your ornaments will provide some much-needed quality time together.

Hang one of your ornaments on your tree this year and give the rest as gifts. In a few years, you'll have added to your decorations and created some memories.

Get a real Christmas tree
Find a tree farm that allows you to cut your own and take a family excursion to pick out this year's Christmas tree. Buy a cheap but sturdy tree stand. Don't spend too much if you're not sure you're going to continue this trend.)

The smell of fresh pine in the house, the sprinkling of needles around the tree and even the not-so-perfect shape bring back a much-enjoyed tradition to the Christmas season.

Get back to basics in gift-giving
Remember the Christmases of your childhood? Under the tree were often a wagon, a doll, a toy truck, a game and a puzzle. Sometimes those simple gifts are the best. Think basics when you're doing your Christmas shopping.

My family once had a book-themed Christmas; we gave everyone in our extended family a classic book that was one of our all-time favorites. Another year, my sister and her husband did board games and gave traditional games like Life, Battleship and Checkers as gifts.

Try getting back to basics in your gift giving this year. If there's time, make some homemade giftsfor those on your list. And don't forget an orange for the foot of every stocking.

String popcorn
All you need is a large needle, white thread, a bowl of plain popcorn, a bag of fresh cranberries and a free evening. You've got a beautiful, natural red-and-white popcorn-cranberry garland for your Christmas tree.

Thread the needle with a long piece of thread and tie a large knot in the end. Poke the needle through 6 to 10 pieces of popcorn and then one cranberry, repeating the pattern. When you get within about four inches of the end of the thread, tie a large knot, leaving the four-inch gap of extra thread at the end.

When you have several popcorn-cranberry strings finished, center the popcorn and cranberries by carefully sliding them to the center of the string, which will leave about two inches of string at each end. Use that extra string to tie the garlands together to make one long garland.

Rethink your Christmas cards
Sending out Christmas cards has become a major source of holiday stress. If you're looking for things to cut back on, eliminate the cards this year and send out a "Happy Spring" card and family letter and picture in April. You can be sure your greetings won't get lost in the shuffle.

If you're set on sending out cards this year, make it a family craft project. The minimum supplies you need are construction paper, old Christmas cards, scissors and glue, but the sky's the limit for available craft supplies, depending on how elaborate you want your cards to be.

If you're cutting up old cards from previous years to use as decorations, try matching up the card to the person you're sending it to. Use pieces of the front of Aunt Sarah's card from last year to decorate the card you're making for her this year.

Start a new tradition
Family traditions are always evolving. It's never too late to start a new tradition, even when your children are teenagers or grownups. Make a gingerbread house. Go Christmas caroling. Bake and decorate cookies together, volunteer at a soup kitchen or watch It's a Wonderful Life together.

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