Holidays Gone Bad: A Survival Guide

It's the most wonderfully stressful time of the year. But when things go wrong, don't turn into a Scrooge. Turn to our handy guide for surviving holiday pitfalls.

How To … Fake Your Way Through a Terrible Gift

1. “Raise your eyebrows and widen your eyes. Say and elongate the word, ‘Wow,’ as long as you can — add a lot of O’s,” says actor Randy Rollison, who plays Scrooge in Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge.”

2. Next, make sure to smile. “Remember they’re vulnerable and are desperate for reassurance and validation of their choice,” he says.

3. Don’t forget to get a twinkle in your eye, Rollison adds. “It costs you nothing and they’ll love you forever.”

4. Choose some of the following lines to add in:

• “How did you know I like (deer jerky, Suzanne Sommers’ insightful poetry, etc.)?”

• “You don’t know how much I love this.” This is ambiguous and close to the turth — they’ll never know how little you love it either, Rollison says.

• “You really shouldn’t have.” Closest to the truth, he says.

5. Last, but not least, close with a short “Wow” and a big “THANKS!” For a big finish, if you can muster up a hug, go for it.

How to … Drive in a Blizzard

1. Listen to the weather forecast and allow yourself extra traveling time. Northeast Ohio sees just about everything fall from the sky. Be prepared for wet, slick, slushy, hard-packed or icy road surfaces, and don’t think you’re invincible.

2. Slow down! Get used to it — winter is the season of sluggish paces. Keep plenty of distance between you and the car in front of you and never assume they know what they’re doing.

3. Use your low beams. Driving with your headlights on the “bright” setting will only light up the falling snow and distract you from the road’s surface.

4. If you have rear-wheel drive, weigh down the back of your vehicle. “A 50-pound bag of cat litter or sand adds a little weight, and you can use it for traction,” suggests Lt. James Harder of Geauga County’s Hambden Township Fire Department.

5. If you start sliding, don’t slam on the brakes. If you do, the brakes could lock, and you’ll be hanging on for the ride. “First and foremost, you need to stay calm. If you’re sliding toward oncoming traffic or an embankment, try to turn out of that. Decelerate and pump the brakes slowly,” says Lt. Scott Meyer of the Chardon Fire Department.

Be Aware

• Keep your supplies fully stocked. Always travel with a nearly full gas tank, in case you have to keep your car running while you wait to be rescued out of a snowdrift. Travel with a fully charged cell phone, a day’s worth of food and fresh water and a stack of blankets in the back seat.

• Bring a shovel. “What I do is get a camp shovel to put in the trunk so I can try to dig the car out or keep the tailpipe clear,” says Lt. Harder. If you get stuck in a snowdrift, he warns, the snow-filled tailpipe could cause carbon monoxide to back up into the car.

What To Do … If The Power Goes Out

1. Report the outage. Call FirstEnergy at 1-888-LIGHTSS.

2. Use common sense. If someone on your street pulled a Clark Griswold and decorated his house with so many lights the power in the whole neighborhood went out, the electricity may come back on sooner than if it was caused by a storm. “If it’s a winter storm and a power line is down in your yard, stay away from it and call your local police department,” says Keith Hancock, senior public relations representative at FirstEnergy.

3. Turn off and unplug major appliances. Although power surges are rare, you don’t want to take a risk, says Hancock.

4. Keep your fridge closed. This will keep your food colder longer. Depending on the length of the outage, you may want to keep a cooler handy to store food. Put the cooler in the garage if it is cold outside, Hancock says.

Be Aware

• Carbon monoxide kills. “Don’t rely on [portable] gas stoves or charcoal grills to cook your holiday meals. These items could produce carbon monoxide, and you wouldn’t even realize it because it is odorless,” Hancock says.

• Stock up on bottled water. Make sure you also have flashlights, a portable radio and extra batteries handy. Make sure you have extra blankets or sleeping bags.

How To … Return a Gift Without a Receipt

1. Know the store’s policy before heading out in the middle of a snowstorm and waiting in long return lines.

2. Wal-Mart’s return policy is one of the most liberal in retail, says spokeswoman Sharon Weber. The company does accept returns without receipts (if the purchase is under $25, customers can receive cash back, and for items more than $25, a shopping card for the amount of purchase is issued).

3. Target is able to track missing receipts made in the previous 90 days. If no record of it can be found, they offer manufacturers’ warranties and repair assistance for items.

4. At Best Buy, customers must have a receipt for all returns, even during the holiday season. Make sure if you receive a gift from this store that the gift giver includes a gift receipt.

5. If you can wait to make returns, wait until a few weeks after the holidays to beat the long lines.

What To Do … If You Screw Up the Potato Latkes

1. If you run out of an ingredient while making potato latkes (fried potato pancakes made with oil, salt, potato, eggs and matzo meal) for a Hanukkah dinner, presenting the meal as a buffet is a perfect way to disguise your mistake. “That would be a perfect opportunity for a move called FHB or ‘Family Hold Back,’ ” says Rabbi Eric Bram of Suburban Temple Kol-Ami in Beachwood. “The family doesn’t eat, but you give food to your guests. If the guests go first at the buffet, they’ll never know that you didn’t make enough food.”

2. If you burn the latkes while sautéing or deep-frying them, Bram advises putting applesauce on top of the pancakes before serving them to hide the blackened exteriors. The other accompaniment usually served with latkes is sour cream, and some guests may prefer both — so make sure to put sour cream on the table as well. But in case you have lactose-intolerant guests, don’t use sour cream to disguise burned pancakes.

3. Whatever you do, don’t use pre-made toaster hash browns to make latkes. In today’s world of pre-packaged goods, it is tempting to take this easy way out, but Bram warns that this is a big faux pas. “With gefilte fish on Passover, there is such a complicated process involved that it is understandable when the host chooses to use fish out of a can,” says Bram. “But latkes are so easy to make, you won’t get much sympathy for taking the easy out.”

What To Do … If Your Tree Catches on Fire

1. Don’t panic. Don’t frantically run around your house collecting all your precious possessions thinking that your house will burn to the ground.

2. Know the drill. If the tree is in a room where you can close the door, close it to isolate the fire. Call 9-1-1 immediately and evacuate the house, says Scott Gilman, Lakewood fire marshal.

3. Try to put the fire out only if you aren’t at risk. “If you do this, make sure you are close to an exit,” Gilman says.

4. Say no to the fire extinguisher. Don’t use a fire extinguisher to put out the holiday flames, use water instead. “The dry powder of a fire extinguisher doesn’t have a cooling effect, and it could actually reignite the fire.”

Be Aware

• Smokey Bear always says, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” and the same can be said for flaming Christmas trees. Dry trees are more likely to catch fire, so if you are buying a live tree, make sure it is fresh. Most trees are cut one to two months before they are shipped to Ohio, Gilman says. To get rid of all the dry, dead needles, shake the tree before bringing it into the house.

• Make sure the tree is freshly cut on the bottom.

• Water the tree regularly and make sure it isn’t set up near a heat register.

How to … Endure the Holiday Shopping Rush

1. Plan year-round. The joyous sigh of “You remembered” will be worth your painstaking efforts at listening for gift tips throughout the year. Andy Selesnik, marketing director at Westfield SouthPark Center in Strongsville, suggests stocking up on “gifts for the hostess” and store gift certificates. “It’s always smart to have gifts on hand when you need them in a pinch,” he says.

2. Avoid holiday traffic. Shop early in the week and during extended holiday hours. The days just before Thanksgiving and the first week in December are still relatively quiet. Procrastinators make the Saturday before Christmas and Dec. 23 the busiest shopping days of the season.

3. Make a day of it. Venture out with your spouse or a friend and break up the day with meals. Selesnik says he knows of a couple who gets all of their holiday shopping done in a day. “They shop for their grandkids, have lunch, shop for their kids, have dinner and spend the evening shopping for each other.”

4. Avoid moodiness by staying hydrated and eating snacks. Arrive with a shopping list

and backup options and make a beeline to your product. Heidi Yanok, senior marketing manager at Beachwood Place mall, says, “Bring a mall directory, wear walking shoes and remember where you parked.”

5. Embrace the spirit of the holiday and commerce. “The holidays are so hectic that you need to take the time to enjoy them,” reminds Selesnik. Sit and listen to choirs in the mall and watch the children visiting with Santa.

What To Do … If Someone Gets Really Drunk

1. It is your responsibility to make sure none of your guests is drinking too much before driving home. “It’s kind of a fine line,” says Sean Payton, bartender at Great Lakes Brewing Co. “You want people to unwind and cut loose.”

2. Watch for the way people are acting, talking and walking as signs of too much to drink.

3. Make sure there are plenty of things to eat and non-alcoholic beverages. Payton suggests having a co-host help you keep an eye out for excessive drinking.

4. Be very tactful and address the intoxicated person in private, preferably out of reach of alcohol.

5. Offer the inebriated guest a drink of water and maybe some food and let them cool down before making their way back to the party. “The only thing that can sober people up is time,” Payton says.

Be Aware

• Coffee and cold showers are not going to work. You are going to have a wide-awake drunk on your hands.

How To … Deal with the Santa Question

1. Pay attention. Age does matter, says clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Casper. For those with a young child, it is OK to keep supporting the myth if it is a positive factor in your child’s life.

2. If your child is between 8 and 10 years old, she says, generally they will become curious and realize the truth. “The fantasy just disappears.”

3. It is important when dealing with older children to be truthful and come clean about how it was OK to believe in Santa when they were younger, but since they are now older and more mature, they do not need this fantasy.

4. Watch out. Older siblings may spill the beans, but encourage them to keep the secret, she says.

5. Believing in Santa Claus causes no emotional trauma. “Parents and family can support the fantasy in a positive way.”

6. Ask your child if he or she personally believes in Santa and let them know there is no harm in believing.

7. Be aware. It is just a part of a holiday story. “Children will still get presents whether they come down a chimney or not,” she says. And that’s what Christmas is all about anyway, right?

What To Do … When You Lose Assembly Directions

1. Take a deep breath and relax. All is not lost. There are plenty of ways to put something together without instructions.

2. Use common sense. Some people don’t even use directions and just go with the flow. (Beware: There may be a risk of putting a toy together wrong and it not working properly.)

3. Most products have a customer service phone number listed on the box or the actual product, though some phone lines are only open during business hours and not at 2 a.m. Christmas morning.

4. Check out the company’s Web site. Mattel ( and Little Tikes ( both have downloadable instructions for most of their products that require assembly. See, you are not the first person to lose directions.

5. Mattel has launched animated instruction videos online as well, complete with a voice reading them aloud. There is a nifty repeat feature in case after watching the slow-motion graphics you still don’t get it. Who would have thought putting together a racing track could be this hard?

6. If all else fails and you are on the verge of becoming a Scrooge, just wait until morning and tell your children Santa is starting a new put-it-together-yourself campaign to make children more independent.

What To Do … If You Burn The Turkey

1. Have a backup plan. During the holidays, people are ready to be served indulgent feasts and the stores are closed, so you can’t just run out and grab something. Burning the turkey can definitely be a crisis, so it is very important to have an alternate plan, says Loretta Paganini, owner of the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking. While some families cook a ham as a backup, her plan is pasta. “It’s just like having a baby, all you need is hot water,” Paganini says. Throw in some olive oil and garlic, and hopefully your pasta will make everyone forget about the blackened turkey.

2. It’s all in the sauce. Turkey is a mainstay of holiday tradition, and you don’t want to throw the family off kilter by robbing them of their beloved poultry. Try to save the turkey by camouflaging the charred outside with a scrumptious gravy.

3. Remember the importance of the holidays. When you break the news to the family that you burned the turkey this year, they may get a little upset. “Remind the family that it doesn’t matter what is on the table. The important thing is being together,” Paganini says.

Be Aware

• Keep a timer with you. “As you get older, you get more forgetful,” Paganini says. “I have a timer that I put around my neck.”

How to … Put Your Kids to Bed on Christmas Eve

1. Wear them out. “Just party till they drop,” says Claire Laffey, mother of four. “For us, Christmas Eve is just a party frenzy, so by the time 2 a.m. rolls around, they’re just too tired to stay up.”

2. Ease their suspense. If you’re home early enough, do a mini gift exchange with the gifts the kids bought for each other. This will help quell some of their curiosity before the big day. “The kids aren’t distracted with the Santa Claus gifts,” says Molly Rochester, mother of three, with another on the way. “The reason that we do it is because it’s so wonderful to see the kids’ faces in the joy of giving.”

3. Begin bedtime traditions. Put out a tray of cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Sprinkle “reindeer dust” — a little glitter, some oats and Cheerios — on the front porch.

4. Employ scare tactics. “We remind them of the story Grandpa told me when I was a little girl,” says Molly Rochester, who tells her children of the time Santa caught Grandpa getting a midnight snack on Christmas Eve. His punishment? Santa threatened to take all his Christmas presents away if he didn’t get to bed. “They look like a deer in headlights, their head hits the pillow, and we don’t hear from them until morning.”

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