Spreading Some Holiday Cheer — The Organized Way

by Ramona Creel

Holiday Greetings

Assuring that your holiday greetings arrived on time used to require a lot of manual labor and bit of good “postal karma.” But with the advent of computer technology, the sending of cards entered a new era. Things became easier, faster, and more customizable — all with the click of a button. So if you're still buying paper cards, handwriting your message, pulling out an old battered address book, and going out to the post office to mail them — its time to join the 21st century! I guarantee you that at least one aspect of your holiday card routine could be automated or done electronically, to save you time and make your life easier.

Let's start with a look at your contacts. Is your address book horribly outdated? Filled with incorrect information, cross-outs, and little notes about folks who have moved in past years? Storing your contacts in a computer program like Outlook or Act — or even just a spreadsheet or generic database — will allow you to update changes more quickly. Just take that stack of cards you receive each year and compare the return addresses with your list — additions, subtractions, and updates will only take a few minutes. Going high-tech also makes it easy to print out either labels or addressed envelopes directly from your computer. This is a huge time-saver around the holidays, especially if you're the type of person who likes to send cards to every human being you ever met — or if you have a lot of business greetings to send to clients and colleagues.

There are also a number of different online services that allow you to order your cards already printed with your holiday greeting. The most full-service of these is SendOutCards – which lets you to choose from thousands of greetings, customize your message for each recipient, print cards in your own handwriting, and include your signature! Best of all, they mail the cards for you, so you don't have to do anything but compose a heartfelt message. Or you can save on money and paper waste by going entirely electronic. Hundreds of different websites like Care2 allow you to send free electronic greetings to an unlimited number of recipients. Whether you prefer “static” cards or animated graphics, a more traditional message or a funny greeting, you can find just the right option. And if you're willing to pull out your wallet, you can even attach a family photo or a shopping gift certificate to your card.

Finally, there is the issue of postage. If you absolutely hate dealing with the lines at the post office this time of year, the good news is that you no longer have to. You can order rolls of stamps  online at USPS.com and have them mailed to you — or you can utilize a service like Stamps.com that allows you to print postage on demand right from your PC. I tell you, there's almost no reason to leave the house anymore!

Baking Goodies

I have a friend who devotes all of December to cookies. Every time I talk to her, she's either measuring, sifting, mixing, baking, icing — or collapsed on the couch, worn out from all the effort. She makes 200-300 cookies each year to send to friends and family. I have personally been the recipient of many tasty treats (the Buckeyes are my favorite) and I always appreciate her generosity — but there's a dark side to all this sweetness.

My friend started this tradition ages ago (before she had a job and a child and a million other responsibilities) — but she says she can't give it up because everyone would be so disappointed. And it apparently doesn't matter that this annual ritual stresses her out, causes her to lose sleep at night, and takes away from other activities she might be enjoying during the yuletide. I am all for throwing yourself 100% into your seasonal projects, but only if you actually get pleasure from them (if not, why are you doing it?) And there are plenty of ways to make holiday baking easier, more fun, and less exhausting.

While I believe that variety is the spice of life (especially when it comes to sweets), it's hard work making a dozen small batches, each from a different recipe. But a cookie swap allows everyone to enjoy a much broader selection of goodies than they would probably have time to bake on their own, with less effort. When you plan your exchange, assign each person a different type of cookie — he or she will makes a huge batch of that one recipe and bring it to the party. Then you divide each pile evenly so that everyone gets to take home a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You might even discover a new favorite!

However, some people insist on doing it all themselves — and that's fine too. But at least develop a system that will save you a little time. Start out with a pad of paper and a pen. Figure out all the varieties of cookies you want to make this season, and for which people or events — ex: gingerbread men for the school party, chocolate chip for your co-workers, rum balls for the mailman, whatever. Bookmark your recipes, and create a master shopping list (so you only have to go to the grocery store once). Do all of your shopping (preferably during a sale or when you have some coupons) and store your ingredients in a safe spot where they won't be used for other purposes. Then divide your baking up into three distinct steps — mixing the ingredients, cooking, and decorating. With most recipes, you can prepare the dough in advance, freeze it, and then bake when you're ready — and the whole thing will go faster, take less effort, and require less cleanup if you can do it in batches. So set aside a few hours for preparing all the dough, rinsing out your mixing bowls and measuring cups between batches — then store each blob of yummy goodness in a labeled ziploc bag in the freezer. On another day, thaw your dough and bake your cookies, one batch after another — the oven's already hot, and you'll be amazed at how quickly it goes when you don't have to preheat for every round. Let your cookies cool and store them in airtight containers — then you can pull them out at your leisure to ice and decorate. Voila — sugar shock without all the stress!

Gift-Giving

Of course, the favorite way of spreading a little holiday cheer is giving presents. Done the wrong way, this can be a very time-consuming and frustrating process — but when you've got an organized process for your gifting, you can stay on top of it all with very little effort.

Step one is to set up a gift “center,” located near a flat surface where you can spread out and wrap presents — a guest-bedroom/hallway closet or under a bed is a good choice. Store your rolls and gift bags in either a stand-up bin or long flat container, put bows and ribbons and embellishments in lidded tubs, and don't forget a spot for your tags, pens, tape, and scissors. You should have everything you need for wrapping presents in one convenient spot.

Now set up a place nearby for storing presents as you buy them — I like to use larger opaque tubs (with lids) that can't be seen through by prying eyes. If you have a lot of children to buy for, you might choose to create one box for “adult” gifts and another for “kid” gifts. This is where you should store your list of gift ideas — specific items and brands that each person in your life might like, clothing and shoe sizes, preferences in terms of color, style, etc. It's also a good idea to set up an envelope or expandable wallet for gift receipts — in case you have a reason to return an item you've bought.

Now comes the system. As you come across sales and bargains throughout the year, try to pick up items on your gift list at a discount. You can also stock up on some “generic” gifts for those unexpected parties and drop-in guests. If it's a gift for a specific person, mark the purchase off on your “ideas list,” label it with a sticky note and the person's name, then put it in your tub. Or to really save time later, go ahead and wrap and tag the item as soon as you get it home (saving fancy embellishments that might get crushed for the last minute). Generic gifts should remain unwrapped until you're ready to give them. If you work systematically through your list during the 12 months before Christmas (and wrap as you go), you'll reduce the need for hurried “last-minute” shopping, and you'll save a lot of time and money along the way.

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at www.RamonaCreel.com. And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.