It is not selfishness that gets us into trouble this time of year; just the opposite, it's our desire to share--to do more, and to take part, that causes us to overdo.
Several years ago, at our children's school program, I sat next to a friend who was calmly enjoying the pageant. Wringing my hands, I was anxious to get home to finish a quilt, a doll and a down vest while this woman sat calmly taking pictures and enjoying her children. Leaning over, I asked, "What's your secret?" She answered, "I put all my mother-only projects away by Dec. 10 if they aren't finished, and just ride the tide." Right there I vowed that I wouldn't get caught under pressure again, and I would set an early cutoff deadline like my cool friend.
The next year, remembering the lesson, I decided I would use Dec. 15 as my cutoff date because that was the last day my children and husband were in school. I assumed that Dec. 10 was probably a little exaggerated, since I am an organizer.
Earlier Cutoff Needed
I learned the hard way that the cutoff date needs to be one week before school is out (when you have children at home), because, as usual, things kept coming up to delay my progress and the last week of school found me down to the wire and hoping for every minute to finish making an afghan, pajamas and robe. I did not have any cushion for last-minute, unpredictable requests.
The following is the list of things my family (husband and five kids) asked me to help them with: two gifts for husband's secretaries, one faculty-party gift, two requests for three dozen cookies each, 12 loaves of rye bread (for childrens' teachers), 100 suckers, two dozen rolls, seven secret Santa gifts, two ornaments to trade at church dinner, one French dish for pot-luck supper (I don't cook anything French except French fries), breakfast for 15 teen-agers, and two more batches of suckers.
No wonder I lost the spirit. And yet it was my own fault. I had encouraged my family in these things because I wanted to teach them the virtues of generosity. I had other hopes for my time, but they could not do these projects all by themselves. This situation was self-imposed but nevertheless stressful. I had to set priorities and make some choices.
This example illustrates some of the most important principles of organizing Christmas: that is, managing your time by recognizing your limitations, learning to say no, and establishing a cutoff date. Remember the McCullough definition for being organized for Christmas is "understanding how much time and money you have to deal with, accepting it, and staying within that boundary."
Every year, no matter how carefully I plan, when it gets close to the final hour I have to pack some projects away because I don't have time to finish everything I had hoped. (I refuse to give half-finished items with promises to complete it in January, because that month has enough of its own stressful surprises.)
This year my cutoff date is Dec. 12. After that the activites will be those the children can do with me so that I can use this opportune time to teach them the lessons of giving, sharing and managing their excitement.
Another part of surviving at this time of year is recognizing your children's needs and helping them cope with their feelings. We often say that "Christmas is for children," but we secretly wish they would wait quietly on a chair and just show up serenely on Christmas morning. That will not happen, and what's more, children may misbehave, not even responding to threats that "Santa won't come." It may help to identify some sort of charitable project to take part in that will focus the child's attention on serving others.
Have a few other projects in mind to keep the children busy. Plan ahead and have the necessary supplies so you can pull them out at the right moment. For starters, consider the following: Make paper chains from red, white and green paper, or cut snowflakes from white paper napkins. (If you don't want those things in your living room, let the children decorate their bedrooms.) Kids love to string popcorn, breakfast cereals, candy, cranberries or bits of plastic-foam packing. They can make place cards, gift tags or place mats (paper disposables are available at grocery stores) from old cards or by tracing around cookie cutters. Make your own inked stamps. No need to carve a carrot or potato, just buy a package of Dr. School's adhesive foam ($1) at the drugstore. Draw a simple figure or word on the paper backing, peel it off and stick the foam to a little block of wood. Presto, you're ready to dab the stamp on an ink pad and start decorating paper for wrap or cards. Red and green ink pads are available in office-supply departments.
Don't Forget Housework
When you put your house on "hold" to make time for holiday extras, remember that there is a minimum amount of work that must be done each day or you sink into clutter and undoneness. What is your minimum? You can tell you have held back too much when frustration and confusion hit.
Make the dinner decision before 10 o'clock. If you will be away from home during the day, that means 10 p.m. the night before; if you are home, it means 10 a.m..
Take time every day to maintain normality with a five-minute pickup in every room (a little longer in the kitchen). Also keep up with the laundry and dirty dishes, because falling behind will immobilize a household very quickly, leading to frustration, discouragement, and depression that block those holiday plans.