Holiday Advice Week: Real Simple Holidays
Stress-Free Gifts, Decorating and Entertaining

Kate Parker
Assistant Home Editor, Real Simple Magazine
Tuesday, December 9, 2008 12:00 PM

The holidays are wonderful, but even the most organized can get overwhelmed with shopping, decorating, entertaining and more.

Kate Parker, assistant home editor for Real Simple Magazine was online Tuesday, December 9 at 12 noon ET to share ideas on keeping the holidays stress-free.

The transcript follows.

For ideas and guidance on holiday gifts, entertainment, entertaining and much more, visit washingtonpost.com's 2008 Holiday Guide. And come back to Live Discussions every day this week to ask our experts for help during our Holiday Advice Week.


Kate Parker: Hi, Kate Parker here from Real Simple. We're all about making life easier - and this time of year that means taking the stress out of your holiday season. The time between Thanksgiving and the New Year is the busiest times on most of our calendars -- with parties to throw and attend, gifts to give, decorations to put up, travel adventures to survive -- all without breaking the bank. Send me your questions and I'll try to provide some helpful suggestions!


D.C.: Our office is having a party with a gift exchange. What are some good gift suggestions for under $20 dollars? Thanks for your help!

Kate Parker: Office gift exchanges are probably the one gift-giving occasion where you have permission to not be thoughtful/personal. In fact, it's better to give something generic. In every office gift exchange I've taken part in, the most popular gifts were gift certificates -- a $20 coffee card or smoothie card will certainly be appreciated, whereas that decorative picture frame will most likely stay in its box. Keep it straightforward. You can get creative and buy a $5 mug in which to give a $15 coffee card. If you're against the gift card, check out our 20 stocking stuffers under $15 on RealSimple.com.


Fairlington, Va.: We're having a holiday open house on Sunday and I would like to serve a signature drink of some sort -- one that could be made two ways, with alcohol and without. Any suggestions for one or two drinks that fit the bill? I don't want to spend the whole party playing bartender, so looking for something that could be made ahead.

Kate Parker: I'd stick with something simple but still festive -- like a Cranberry Fizz -- mix ginger ale and cranberry juice in a pitcher, then serve in Champagne glasses. For the alcoholic version, add gin. Garnish both with a few cranberries per glass.


Vienna, Va.: For the first time in ages, we won't be traveling this season. I want to deck the halls with my three little boys, but I also don't want everything to get destroyed by them. Any suggestions for great decorations to maybe make (or at least put up) with my boys, who are ages 5, 3 and 1?

Kate Parker: I'm a big fan of the cut-out snowflake project, though your boys are a bit young for that. Chiasso.com has great felt snowflakes from Design Ideas that are fun and easy to put up all over the house. You could also have the boys gather pinecones and arrange them in glass vases. Spray-paint them silver or gold if you don't mind getting a little messy!


Alexandria, Va.: My husband has a job that requires us to entertain a lot all year round in our home. I try to keep things simple, but am running out of ideas for the holidays. Next up is a dinner for 28 people. Any suggestions for easy table decorations and or goodbye gifts/trinkets?

Kate Parker: 28 people is a large dinner party, so keep it simple. Pottery Barn has great mini silver Christmas trees, spaced out along the center of your table, with small silver ornaments scattered throughout. Add a few candles for instant glow. You could also bring out assorted silver or glass vases/bowls and line them up in the center of the table, filled with store-bought moss with small ornaments resting on top. If the ornaments are specially chosen, they could be the goodbye gift/trinket; have guests reach into the centerpeice at the end of the meal to pick their gift!


Baltimore, Md.: I am 36 weeks pregnant and due any week now. I just cannot focus on gift-giving this year. Ordinarily I am one of those people who bake things or make hand-made gifts for friends. I also usually cook the Christmas dinner for family who comes over. This year I am completely exhausted and frankly overwhelmed because I am still working full time and have to make all of the baby preparations. Is my bailing out of the holiday season this year in bad form?

Kate Parker: You've got a free pass in my book! It sounds like by now your friends and family know that you are a giver (making them special treats, cooking the dinner), and if there's any time for you to bow out of these duties for once, it's now! I'm assuming most of your friends and family know you are 36 weeks along and will understand. Your priority right now is to get ready for the new addition to your family. My best advice to you is to realize that sometimes it's okay to take a break and focus on yourself. If you still feel like you need to do something, send cards to loved ones, and make a joke about how you would have baked them a gift but you've already got a bun in your oven.


Bethesda, Md.: My kids are 7, 4 and 2 and I am in search of great craft ideas to do with them that could turn into gifts for their aunts and uncles. I guess we could do something food related, but really anything would be great. I'm at a total loss.

Kate Parker: Bake sugar cookies, cut into holiday shapes, then decorate. I did this with my little cousins last year (ages 6 and 8) and it was a blast. Once you've baked the cookies (store bought dough is perfectly acceptable), use frosting and sprinkles in festive colors to decorate, then package them in cellophane bags and tie with red ribbon. I'm sure the aunts and uncles will appreciate a sweet treat -- and it's really fun to see how the kids decorate the cookies when given free reign.


Silver Spring, Md.: For the mom who wants to do something with her kids: When we were kids my mother used to send us out to pick up pine cones, then we spread glue on them and sprinkled with glitter. Glue a ribbon and instant ornaments.

Kate Parker: Love this!


Silver Spring, Md.: Any ideas for inexpensive (but not cheap) hostess gifts? I'd prefer not to bring a bottle of wine to every party we attend but also don't want to show up empty-handed.

Kate Parker: Why not upgrade that bottle of wine by adding a special ornament (tied around the neck of the bottle)? You could also go with a specialty (non-perishable) food gift like jarred chutney or marinating sauces -- to be used for future parties. When it comes to hostess gifts, I try to stick with things you can buy a lot of at once, then have on hand when it comes to party time (avoiding seven separate trips to the store). Choose one thing and buy in bulk. Also, a nice wine opener is always a welcome addition to any hostess -- they're always going missing at parties!


New York, N.Y.: Help! I'm hosting a dinner party this weekend for several couples. I really want to set a nice table and I also would like to do something interesting as far as place cards go. Any ideas? I have white dinnerware and a white tablecloth, so I guess it's sort of a blank canvass. I've never put much thought into creating a "tablescape" but all of a sudden I'm feeling like I'll be offering up the blandest of spaces.

Kate Parker: For an instant punch of color without much effort, place pomegranates and cranberries in glass vases at the center of the table. Or get a colorful runner to add on top of your white table cloth. For the place cards, why not add a little keepsake -- like an inexpensive, small photo frame with the guests name written in it. Or tie an ornament or stocking on the back of each chair with the guests name written on a small card attached with a ribbon. You could add colorful chargers under your plates for more color if your really looking to pump it up.


Charlotte, N.C.: Every year I think that this will be the year that I'll create homemade gifts for my family and friends. This year I was hoping to create a cookbook for my family. Any suggestions on how to do this in a fun, not terribly involved way?

Kate Parker: Lulu.com -- check it out. everything you need to get going on that family cookbook. They make it extremely easy to upload your pictures and recipes, then publish!


Washington, D.C.: Hi there. Any gift ideas/suggestions for a teacher from a kindergarten age boy? He's got two teachers in his class and I'm looking for something a little more unique and personable than a "#1 Teacher" ornament. Thanks!

Kate Parker: Several of my dear friends are teachers, so I can't stress enough how much a teachar appreciates a gift certificate. Whether it's to your local coffee shop, nail salon, Sephora, or just an Amex gift card that can be used anywhere Amex is accepted -- a little extra "cash" this time of year goes a long way for those hardworking teachers. If you want to add something more personal, get a cute pencil cup from Thomas Paul (available at seejanework.com) for $6 and place the gift card inside it.


Oviedo, Fla.: I am making gifts and holiday fare for the family from affordable pantry staples. Fudge from cocoa and powered sugar we have, corn muffins for neighbor gifts and peanut butter cookies for Santa. Pancakes for New Year's brunch and lentil stew for Christmas Eve supper before concert. To heck with out of season raspberries and lump crabmeat. What says festive to me is making the most of what I have, and so far I am happy with this plan. A big Visa bill doesn't say Happy New Year to anyone. Look around and see what you already have... then use it.

Kate Parker: Love this - there's nothing wrong with using what you have!


Rockville, Md.: I really want to do something creative with our front door this year. In the past I've grabbed a wreath from the hardware store, stuck a ribbon in it, and moved on. But this year I'd like to try something different -- or at least a little more special. Any thoughts?

Kate Parker: Upgrade the traditional wreath with your own personal touch: a large monogram letter perhaps (anthropologie has great metallic ones), affixed with fishing wire. Or clementines strung into bundles with heavy gauge wire. Jingle bells are a nice addition too.


Raleigh, N.C.: What are your favorite sources for online shopping? I truly despise going to the mall and am looking to do all of my shopping online this year, ideally this week. I'll need to buy things for people of all ages -- babies, little kids, teens, 20- and 30-somethings, Boomers, and seniors. Needless to say, I am pretty overwhelmed and not looking forward to this.

Kate Parker: Before you give up, check out our Gift Guide - 50 Gifts under $50, at realsimple.com. Too many great ideas to list here...we've culled the market to bring you the best for all the ages you listed. And all can be ordered online and delivered in time for the holidays. Personally, I'm a big book-giver, and nothing could be easier than Amazon.com.


Edible gifts: One of my favorite things to do is to make homemade marshmallows, package them in cellophane and give them along with a tin of really good hot chocolate. Makes for a great hostess gift and really isn't difficult to do. Plus people seem amazed that a person can actually MAKE marshmallows. (I mean, it's just sugar and corn syrup and gelatin, but somehow they take on this big allure in marshmallow form!)

Kate Parker: I love this idea. And if you're really too daunted to make them yourself, why not buy store bought ones, package them well as described with celophane and ribbon, and give with a specialty hot chocolate (like Mirabelle). Great hostess gift or gift for a not-too-close friend.


Xmas day brunch: Hi, it's our tradition to attend early Mass (7:30 a.m.) on Christmas Day and then come back to have a nice long morning with presents. What can I make for brunch that does not need to be in the oven (since we won't be home) but will be ready when we come back from church? Thank you!!!

Kate Parker: My family has a similar routine -- and every year we go nuts for the egg caserole. It's "assembled" the night before, then stored in the fridge. All it needs is 20 minutes in the oven when you get back from church, then serve. Recipes on Realsimple.com or Epicurious.com. Alternately, you could do a nice fruit salad and homemade granola (made the day before) with yogurt and honey. No heating-up involved with that one!


no to Christmas tree centerpieces: That table for 28 guests almost certainly includes Jewish, Muslim or Hindu guests; putting Christmas trees in the center of the table brings a non-inclusive air to the festivities. Plenty of ideas skirt the religious issue but are gracious and festive. Snowflakes, gold and silver candles, silver and white lame, etc. Try that one again, please. This time, count everyone in.

Kate Parker: I completely agree you would never want to exclude guests with your decor choices. The trees to which I was referring are very neutral -- hard to describe without seeing them! All the same, I love beautiful seasonal fruit (cranberries, clementines) in mercury glass bowls just as much. There are a lot of ways you could go with centerpieces.


Arlington, Va.: Any ideas on what I could give my husband for Christmas? It's our first together since our wedding and while I was pretty good at giving gifts when I was in girlfriend/fiance mode, I feel like I've lost my mojo now that we're married. Not to mention that we were very blessed with gifts to us both for the wedding, so I don't feel like we need any material things. Nevertheless, my husband loves Christmas and I don't want to disappoint him. He's 34, fit, a bit of a tech geek, stylish, loves music, reads a ton, etc.

Kate Parker: If you indeed received a ton of wedding gifts, and want to steer clear of material gifts, do something more personal/thoughtful: create a grab bag of memories from your first year of marriage. Fill a bag or box with items that remind him of the happiest times you've shared together, whether it be trinkets from a vacation you took, the candy you always share at the movies, a mix of his favorite music.


Crafty gifts for little ones: Go to Michaels or AC Moore and buy the clear plastic ball ornaments. Then get pompoms in different colors and glitter and glitter glue. Then make an assembly line. The 2 year old can stuff the pompoms into the clear ball, the 4 year old can add the glitter inside. The 7 year old can put some glitter glue dots on the outside. Simple inexpensive gifts for grandma that the kids made. Alternately, the 4 year old and 7 year old can glue gems on the outside, you can put the glue dots on for the 2 year old and she/he can place the gems.

Kate Parker: i like the assembly line idea!


Cherished gift for any occasion: I have scanned a picture of our great grandmother in her early 30s who was born in the mid-1800s. I print a sepia-toned picture and frame it in a beautiful frame for relatives who do not have a copy of the picture. I last gave it as a baby shower gift. My next project is to scan wedding pictures of my aunts and uncles for my cousins.

Kate Parker: Photos are a great gift -- especially restoring old family photos. Check out this site for custom framing that is affordable!


Kate Parker: It's been a pleasure chatting with you today.

Don't forget, we've got a great Gift Guide (50 Gifts Under $50) in the December Issue of Real Simple, or on RealSimple.com, where you'll also find hundreds of tips and tricks for surviving the holiday season with less stress.

We've also got a Holiday Blogathon going on RealSimple.com, where, every day until Christmas, the best food, fashion, organizing, entertaining, fitness, and tech bloggers will be sharing their secrets to surviving the holiday season, from gift ideas and organizing tricks to budget smarts and time-saving tips.

Happy Holidays!


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