Smile Politely

Tips for holiday survival

Why fight it? Holiday time is here, and merriness will be forced out of you one way or another. Go quietly.

If you think you detect a little seasonal grumpiness, you’re right. The holidays bring out the best and the worst in people, and my yearly challenge is always to increase the former in myself while squishing out the latter.

In that spirit, here are some tips to help keep the celebrating sweet and simple.

Invest in good scents.
Don’t cheap out on the scented candles, soaps, and lotions. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but make sure that you really like the stuff you get. A $10 candle with a great, non-artificial smell is going to go farther than just about anything else toward creating a holiday mood in your home.

Likewise, holiday hand soaps and lotions turn every trip to the sink for a good hand-washing into a mini aromatherapy session. Sound a bit overstated? Here’s the thing: I’ve found that I have an amazing ability to adapt to the amount of holiday “stuff” in my house. I can put baubles on every surface that will hold them, and after a while I’ll still wonder if I’ve decorated enough; but the scented items renew themselves every time a candle is lit or lotion is applied. I think that, dollar for dollar, these things provide the most holiday cheer (as much as things, as opposed to experiences, can).

Here’s a tip within a tip: Being a good host/hostess is always about making your guests feel comfortable. A lit candle in the bathroom does more than create a warm, inviting space-that little flickering flame is like the best of friends, the most trusted secret keeper when it comes to helping people relax and do what they need to do while using the facilities, especially during a crowded party in a cramped house or apartment. (Keep unscented candles on hand for guests with asthma.)

Keep your cooking sane.
Are you really anxious to try that pear-scented quail sous vide with cranberry and pine nut gremolata? Try it on some off weekend in January. The holidays are no time to be killing your budget with fancy ingredients and chaining yourself to the stove. If you’re relaxed and happy, your guests will be, too. Read through Bon Appetit or Saveur for inspiration, but go to to find the dishes you’ll actually prepare. Here’s what I like about that site: If you find a dish that has 100+ reviews and a rating of 4 ½-5 out of 5 stars, mathematically speaking, it has to be good. Also, I’ve found that most of the dishes tend to involve pretty common ingredients and a nice, short prep time.

A few quick tips: don’t make your own sugar cookie dough; buy the mix in a bag to which you add an egg and a stick of butter (or the pre-mixed dough log you can just roll out). Add a little extra flour if you need to make it less sticky. Don’t roll it out any thinner than ¼ of an inch, bake until just starting to brown around the edges, and leave the cookies in the pan for about 5 minutes before you remove them to a wire rack to cool.

Sugar cookie icing is ridiculously easy: powdered sugar + a touch of milk (literally a tablespoon or so) + a drip or two of (clear) vanilla + whatever colors you want, and you’re ready to go. It shouldn’t be either too runny or thick like cake icing; somewhere between the two is ideal. Put it in a sturdy plastic sandwich bag, snip a tiny bit off the tip, and go to town. It spreads out well but can still be used for finer decorating details and dries nice, shiny, and hard. In savory dishes, heavy cream and kosher salt cover a multitude of sins.

Speak up about cutting back on gifts.
For me, one of the biggest headaches associated with the holidays comes from feeling expected to buy a slate of shiny new gifts for everyone on my list. This “stuff” gluttony is depressing on so many levels.

If you feel the same, tell your family and friends early and in so many words that you plan on scaling back your gift giving. Likewise, suggest that they keep gifts for you/your family smaller and simpler. It may seem crass, but it will help alleviate any awkward moments around the Christmas tree later on.

As your family grows with marriages/births/etc., you may at some point propose drawing names so that everyone is responsible for buying a gift for only one other person.

With some people on your list, try suggesting a shared experience (such as lunch together) in lieu of swapping gifts. You could also do a date at The Pottery Place for this, and in the process kill two birds (spending time with your friend and creating a special homemade gift for someone else) with one stone.

These suggestions will not cover every gifting scenario, however. There will be people with whom you are just not comfortable talking about spending less or drawing names. Work with every situation to the best of your ability, and in any case, give yourself a dollar limitan amount over which you do not intend to spend.

Here are some ways to make that money go farther: Head to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore, grab a basket, and fill it with a collection of their great, cheap, resale goods. You can stick to a theme, such as old cookbooks or Christmas decorations, to help make the gift come together. Add a few new finishing touches, such as cooking ingredients, wrapped candy, or a bottle of wine.

Also, some local radio stations sell gift certificates for half price (two sites I check are and If you want to use these for gifts, be sure you are familiar with the restrictions that are attached. For example, some places won’t take multiple gift certificates during a single visit, most restaurant gift certificates can’t be used on alcohol, and I don’t think any of them gives cash back or will allow you to use a certificate for more than one visit.

For the spa fiend on your list, go to cosmetology schools to get gift certificates for services such as facials, manicures, and pedicures at a fraction of salon costs. For giftees who are willing to travel or live close to large, urban areas, the choice of cosmetology schools grows, as does the list of services they provide.

And, now, a short list of holiday bests…

Best, quick holiday cocktail, pt. 1:
Peppermint schnapps blended with enough vanilla ice cream to make a nice, thick shake. Serve in a fun glass, garnish with a miniature candy cane.

Best, quick holiday cocktail, pt. 2:
Beer, in a can, served in a great holiday drink cozy.

Best fun thing to do at a holiday party:
A white elephant (or cheap) gift exchange wherein people bring gifts that either cost a small amount or are taken from around the house. People jockey for position (look for game ideas for this online) to select the wrapped, unknown gifts, then can steal from one another. Amuses every time.

Best fun Christmas song:
“Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC.

Best Christmas movie you may have missed:
We’re No Angels starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray.

Best version of A Christmas Carol:
George C. Scott as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Not only is he perfectly cast, physically speaking, his Scrooge is nuancedhe doesn’t start off too crusty or end up too merry.

Best holiday spirit lifter:
Buy a gift for a charity toy drive, such as the Salvation Army’s. You can find their table with cards giving ages/genders of kids in need at Marketplace Mall throughout the shopping season.

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