The Twelve Days of Christmas in earlier times were celebrated after Christmas, ending Jan. 6. But now the Twelve Days are more apt to signify the countdown before.

If you spent last December racing madly about buying last-minute gifts, wrapping packages, rushing to the dry cleaners, scrawling cards, cooking late into the night--and vowing that next year would be different -- here's a time chart to which you can at least aspire.

Today -- With only 12 days to go, take a realistic look at your holiday "To Do" list. Choose only the items you can't live without. Remember: A creative mind always has more ideas than the body can accomplish.

Dec. 14 -- Talk with the people who are sharing your holidays. Find out what they like most and like least -- and what they will help with. Tamper with tradition. Tradition has a place, but dragging through "we've-always-done-it" routines when they've lost their meaning--and you've lost your energy -- is unnecessary. Be sure to include the kids in your planning.

Dec. 15 -- Last chance to get gifts to out-of-town friends and relatives on time. If you don't have time to send them all something, remember them with a phone call. To avoid long lines, check for self-help post offices open 24 hours a day.

Dec. 16 -- Finish writing greeting cards. If you're getting writer's cramp, consider saving some until New Year's . . . or Valentine's Day. Get other members of the family to help you.

Dec. 17 -- Fill in the blanks on your gift list. Avoid perfectionism. Remember: It's the thought that counts. Choose one or two special gifts that can be given to several people.

Dec. 18 -- Clear the decks for holiday decorating. Do a quick housecleaning, but save the carpet shampooing and window washing until January. Do you have your Christmas tree? This might be the night to trim it.

Dec. 19 -- Sit down and plan your holiday menus and party needs. Consider alternatives to making everything yourself. It's too late to use all 10 cookie recipes. Make a triple batch of your favorite recipe instead -- let the children hang some on the tree -- and swap cookies with a friend.

Dec. 20 -- Good time for major food shopping. Make a complete check list of what you need, including non-food items like candles and wrapping paper. Organize your purchases at the check-out. Put all frozen foods in one bag, paper products in another.

Dec. 21 -- Run last-minute errands. Do party clothes need accessories, repairs or cleaning? Do you have a copy of "The Night Before Christmas"? Order centerpiece from the florist, or decide on a simple one you'll make from leftover Christmas tree boughs. Fill the car with gas.

Dec. 22 -- Set up one place to wrap packages where you have all your supplies together and where everyone can take turns wrapping surprises for others. Open a bottle of wine and make a party of it.

Dec. 23 -- Consider last-minute alternatives to the shopping mall crush with flowers, theater tickets, a baby-sitting certificate, a bundle of firewood, an invitation to lunch during the January doldrums. Be realistic. Avoid setting yourself up for disappointment. There is always another holiday. You don't have to use all your ideas this year.

Dec. 24 -- Relax, even try to sneak in a nap. Martyrdom does not contribute to holiday joy. Happy people enjoying each other's company is what the season is all about -- a gift that money cannot buy.