Holidays the easy way

Instructions: Be ready for the holidays this year, so you can celebrate in style without becoming a grinch.*

A room-by-room guide to easy home improvements your guests will be sure to notice.
Show off the city: Where to take

1 Planning

The most wonderful time of the year can also lead to writer’s cramp. That’s if you even have the energy or inclination to write and send out holiday cards. But it’s a great we’re-thinking-of-you gesture, and Cleveland’s own American Greetings offers advice on how to pencil in the time to pen your holiday greetings.
1 Start early: Fifteen percent of card buyers send more than 50 holiday cards each year. Starting early allows you to break that task into manageable steps. Begin by Nov. 13 and you only have to write 10 a week.
2 Play up your downtime: Stash spare cards in your purse so you can make the most of time spent waiting in doctor’s offices and picking up the kids from practice.
3 Don’t push it to the wire: During the holidays, the post office suggests allowing three to seven days for cards to reach their destination. Plan accordingly.

Prioritize This!
Family gatherings, shopping, cooking, decorating — feel that? That’s you being pulled in every direction. So JoEllen Salkin, professional organizer for Cleveland’s Organizing 4 U offers her advice for planning and prioritizing:
1 Get feedback: Before the holiday season, ask each family member to choose one thing they really want to do to celebrate. Make a commitment to those events, and cut the extras. “Planning ahead and making lists will help keep your affairs in order,” says Salkin. 
2 Delegate tasks: Set timelines for when you want certain tasks accomplished and then hand them off. “Learn to accept that others may not do it exactly how you would, but it’s taking one more thing off your list,” says Salkin.
3 Learn to say “no”: Do what you’re excited about, not what you feel obligated to do. Remember, “It’s OK to say no.”

“Use a travel agent,” says Robert Ross, one of the travel service trainers at AAA East Central. “They can keep you abreast of the lowest fare. They can give you firsthand information.”
Not only does it save you from scouring the Web, it reduces stress. With endless flight delays and cancellations this year, air transportation has been chaotic, and it isn’t looking any better for the holidays. Travel agents receive flight status reports before the general public and can inform you of any delays.
“When things go wrong, it’s your responsibility to correct them when you [buy airfare online],” Ross says. “When things go wrong when dealing with a travel agent, [the problem] is theirs. You have an ally on your side working with the airlines.”

Search online for the best fare. Travelocity has a “flexible dates” search option, which provides a list of prices for other days those fares are available. The most important part of securing a deal on airfare is flexibility in your travel dates.
“If you can travel on the holiday itself, you can usually get a pretty good fare,” says Judy Graham-Weaver, public relations manager for AirTran Airways (which flies out of Akron-Canton Regional Airport). AirTran’s Web sales mean you may still find a deal a few days before departure.
Since Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is a hub for Continental Airlines, there are many flights to choose from at affordable prices. Continental’s Web site guarantees the airline’s lowest fares anywhere, so book directly, recommends Continental’s Dave Messing.

Party Politics
Nothing is worse than showing up at your office holiday party wearing jeans and a sweater when everyone else looks like they’re straight out of Vogue. Correction: There’s nothing worse than drinking too much at your office party because you showed up wearing jeans and a sweater and everyone else looks like they’re straight out of Vogue. Over-drinking and other office-party faux pas to avoid, courtesy of Cleveland etiquette guru Dick Blake:
DON’T: If you work in a business-casual to professional environment, jeans and flip-flops won’t cut it. If you’re still unsure, take note of how your superiors dress.
DON’T: “Talk to as many people as possible, but don’t listen to or participate in gossip,” Blake says. “Nothing brings a party down like gossip. It just doesn’t belong.”
DON’T: Just because the drinks are free doesn’t mean you need to fill up on them. Getting drunk will only hurt your reputation. Blake suggests a two-drink maximum.

Wardrobe Drama? Get Help
If the thought of choosing an outfit for an upcoming holiday party induces a state of wardrobe panic, take a deep breath: Personal shoppers are here to help. Whether you’re shopping for black-tie, business casual or night-on-the-town outfits, these stylists are trained to uncover your inner fashion maven. “It really is one-stop shopping,” says Liliane Richa, one of two personal shoppers at Dillard’s in Beachwood. “You come in, and you have one person who gets to know everything about you — your likes, your needs, what your family likes, what your style is and, especially, what your budget is.” Personal shopping services are free and by appointment only:
Dillard’s: (216) 464-6000
Nordstrom: (216) 378-2121
Saks Fifth Avenue: (216) 292-0515
All three stores are at Beachwood Place, 26500 Cedar Road, Beachwood

2 Shopping

Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle Me Elmo, Xbox 360: All were once that “hot toy” of the holiday season. Sid Good, president of Cleveland-based Good Marketing, says there likely won’t be one “it toy” this year, but he expects Ganz’s Webkinz and Fisher Price’s Kid-Tough Digital Camera to continue to be hot come Christmas. So how do you land those hard-to-find toys? Good suggests asking children to write their holiday wish lists early, so there’s time to search out stores and the Internet for the best deals. If you want to wait for a sale, Good recommends doing your homework. “It’s important to keep track of what’s in stock and what companies are expecting reorders,” he says. Other toys on Good’s hot-list radar include Air Hogs by Spin Master, Hasbro FurReal Friends Butterscotch Pony and the Fisher Price Smart Cycle: Physical Learning System.

The Final Countdown
OK, guys (and, yes, we know you’re male if you’ve painted yourself into this gift-giving corner), you rolled your eyes when those early birds started their holiday shopping in September, but now, you’re 24 hours away from the big day and still have gifts to buy. Don’t worry, there is hope — even with two hours left.
Less than 24 hours left …With Giant Eagle stores open on Christmas Eve until 5 p.m., you have time to grab a fruit basket or bottle of wine. The stores also sell gift cards to more than 60 retailers and restaurants (and the purchases count toward the Fuel Perks discount-gas program).
Less than 12 hours left …Popular online retailers L.L. Bean, iTunes and Amazon offer e-mail gift certificates for online shopping. Just click, and within hours the gift is in your recipient’s e-mail inbox.
Less than 2 hours … No one will ever know you ordered the magazine subscription on Christmas Eve. Write a nice note inside a card announcing the gift (you’ll need some emergency holiday cards — do that now).

Black Friday Survival Guide
Thanksgiving is quickly turning into the day to give thanks for down coats and $300 LCD televisions. Black Friday is becoming Gray Thursday as people arrive by 6 p.m. Thanksgiving night, advertisements in hand, to wait in line for 11 hours to get the lowest prices of the season. If frostbite in the name of shopping is not your thing, opt for one of these strategies:
 Choose an alternative. Many anchor stores at Northeast Ohio malls, including Westfield’s SouthPark Center in Strongsville, open as early as
5 a.m., and the lines are much shorter than the big-box wait-a-thons. Often, door-buster sales and free gifts help sweeten the pot and get you in the holiday spirit. “It’s so fun to see all the hustle and bustle,” says SouthPark marketing director Andy Selesnik.
 Wait it out. “It’s really busy up until 9 a.m.,” Selesnik says. “Then the early crowds leave, and the people who slept in and enjoyed their morning get there at 11 a.m.” Around 6 p.m. is another slow period, he says.
 Decide whether you need to go early. Aurora Farms Premium Outlets’ holds an annual Midnight Madness event, where stores open for a straight 22 hours of sales. But here’s a secret: You may not have to show up at midnight to get what you want, according to Michele Rothstein, senior vice president of marketing at Chelsea Premium Outlets, Aurora Farms’ parent company. “If sales are the same throughout the whole weekend, there’s no difference between the sale at midnight and 8 p.m.” she says, but notes some stores do have extra specials for early shoppers.
 Draft a plan of attack. Since many stores and shopping centers post sales on their Web sites prior to the big day, make a list of where you want to hit and what you hope to buy at each, to make the most of your shopping time.

(Don’t) Shop Till You Drop
Leave the malls to the masses. There are hassle-free ways to please everyone on your list without changing out of your pajamas (or spending hours of squinting-time shopping online). You can now even pick up gift cards for popular stores (and save cash doing it) without ever leaving the house. Fraud-protected gift card exchange Web sites such as and match buyers with people trading their unwanted gift cards for cash at discounted prices. CardAvenue CEO Robert Butler says some of his site’s users purchase the discounted cards before they head to the mall as a way to stretch their shopping budget. “Essentially, it’s free money,” he says.

Looking for other easy gift ideas? Opt for one of these stress-free standbys:
1| Magazine subscriptions:
Keep an eye on publishers’ Web sites, such as for deals on popular publications such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire. In many cases, they’ll even send a card announcing your gift to your recipient. 
2| Charitable donations: For someone who has everything, make a donation in their name to their favorite cause. Most nonprofit organizations send a card to the gift recipient to let her know a donation has been made in her name.
3| Hard-to-get tickets: Sold out? So what. It’s not exactly inexpensive, but you can score tickets to big-name music and sporting events at

3 Cooking

Trouble-free Recipes

The holidays equal food — lots of it. But time constraints can make it tough to prepare ornate holiday meals. Linda Larsen,’s consultant to the busy cook, recommends breaking out the slow cooker to get you through the season. “You give a part of yourself when you cook,” she says. “And you make your home seem cozier when you make even the tiniest effort.” Larsen offered us a quick recipe that even the busiest folks can pull off beautifully.

Crock Pot Brisket
3 pounds beef brisket, trimmed
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
2 cups baby carrots
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup beef broth
Wipe brisket with paper towel. Sprinkle with brown sugar, salt and pepper. Set aside. In a slow cooker, combine garlic, onion and carrots. Place the brisket on top of the vegetables. In small bowl, combine remaining ingredients and mix well with a wire whisk. Pour over the brisket, then cover and cook on low for eight to 10 hours or until brisket is tender and sauce is slightly thickened. Slice brisket and serve with vegetables and sauce. Serves 8 to 10
Linda Larsen shared even more of her food expertise, creating recipes for Crock-Pot stuffing, simple latkes, easy applesauce, honey cake and make-ahead raspberry sweet rolls and scrambled eggs.

E-Z Bake Heaven
No time to bake? No excuse, says Missy Salmon, pastry chef at Totally Cooked Catering in Cuyahoga Falls. Planning ahead and working smart is all an aspiring holiday baker needs to whip up a tasty batch of Christmas Eve cookies to set out for Santa.
TIP 1: Make a list of what you want to bake and familiarize yourself with the recipes, so you can buy all the ingredients ahead of time. “No trips to the grocery while you are in the middle of baking something,” Salmon says.
TIP 2: Cut down on the dreaded cleanup by washing your baking utensils as you go.
TIP 3: Befriend your freezer. Spend one day mixing your creations, then freeze the dough. Pop the unfinished products into the oven as you need them instead of trying to complete all your baking at once.
TIP 4: Don’t forget to inject a dose of TLC: “The love you put into them is the secret ingredient,” Salmon says. That’s officially why mom’s baking is always delicious.

Missy Salmon’s Coconut Jam Thumbprints
1 1/2 cups butter, at room temperature         
1 cup granulated sugar                               
3 eggs (one for dough, two for egg wash)
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
Flaked coconut
Your favorite jam
In a large mixing bowl, blend butter and sugar, scraping the bowl as needed. Add one egg and mix well. Slowly add the flour, and continue mixing until the dough comes together. Form dough into 1-inch balls.
In a small bowl, beat two eggs. Dip dough balls into the egg wash, then roll into flaked coconut. On a parchment-lined cookie sheet, place cookie balls 2 inches apart. With your thumb, make an indentation in the center of each; fill indentation with a small amount of jam. Bake at 350 degrees for eight to 10 minutes or until coconut is golden brown. Let cool for five minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container. Makes five dozen.

How To: Fold a Brid of Paradise Napkin
Pretty is everything,” says Rochelle Popovich, a banquet server at the InterContinental Hotel. If you’re entertaining during the holidays, remember that neat, clean settings lend a unified look to any table, whether you’re using your finest china or your year-round dishes. Add a pretty touch with a bird of paradise napkin fold, Popovich says, and you’ll find it’s a conversation-starter, too.
1 Fold a sturdy square napkin into quarters, laying it diamond-shaped in front of you with the folded edges facing downward.
2 Fold the bottom half of the diamond to meet the top, creating a triangle.
3 Fold the triangles’ sides in toward the middle, with the bottom points extending past the bottom fold of the original triangle.
4 Fold the extended points underneath the bottom fold, creating another small triangle.
5 Fold the resulting triangle in half, allowing the center to pop open slightly.
6 Gently pull the napkin’s top four corners apart and downward to resemble a festive bird of paradise.

4 Home
Tree for All
Rumors run wild about the best way to keep Christmas trees healthy. Jim Winklhofer, general manager at Cahoon Nursery in Westlake, has heard them all: aspirin, Sprite, corn syrup and liquid bleach, even vodka. But if you’re looking for a more scientific way to keep your tree healthy, it’s not what you mix in the water, it’s what’s in the tree’s genetic makeup. “Tree type is the key to everything,” Winklhofer says. People who purchase trees the day after Thanksgiving should pick up a Douglas, Fraser or Noble fir. These longer-lasting options survive indoors through the New Year, unlike their pine counterparts, which last about three weeks. To keep your tree strong, Winklhofer says skip the wacky concoctions and pick up a bottle of tree preserver for around $2. 

The Seven-day Decorating Plan
Stringing holiday lights is never at the top of anyone’s fun list. Instead of rushing to decorate your home over one weekend, Diana Hudson Kresnye, owner of Devine Designs in Chesterland, suggests spreading it out over a week.
Day 1: Focus on your home’s exterior. Whether you only do a few strands or pull a Clark Griswold level of holiday lighting, be sure to focus on more than just one area. “Balance out your lighting by having at least three areas [of your home’s exterior] decorated,” Kresnye says.
Days 2 and 3: Start small on the inside. Begin by decorating a table or mantel. Make interior decorating less stressful by selecting a simple theme to carry throughout your home.
Days 4 thru 6: Trim the tree. It’s a favorite Christmas tradition, but one that is often rushed. Take your time and enjoy yourself.
Day 7: Sit back and relax. The hard part is over. “Light a fire, make hot cocoa, play holiday music and cherish time spent with family and friends,” Kresnye says.
Death to the Poinsettia
Admit it, you’re sick of them, too. But, like it or not, the poinsettia seems to be the default flower of the season. Take a stand against it this year. We went in search of other ideas that reflect the season without beating you over the head with red. Here’s are a few suggestions from Renee Burns, owner of Brown’s Flowers in Cleveland:
For arrangements, find flowers that are different, but still festive, such as amaryllis or orchids. “We’re also seeing a lot more of the beautiful pines and cedars,” Burns says. “And I’m not talking about the sticky, old pine. These are fragrant and beautiful.”
Create a unique centerpiece by arranging the spring flowers in an unusual vase. Garnish with fresh pines instead of baby’s breath and embellish with ribbons or Christmas bulbs.

How To: Pack Like a Pro 
The last thing on your mind at the end of a hectic holiday season is planning for next year. But taking some time to organize your decorations as you tear them down this year, can save you a dose of stress 11 months from now. “People become more ill over the holidays because of that stress, and it’s really because they haven’t thought about it ahead of time,” says professional organizer Chris Perrow, of Perrow Systems in Silver Lake. Here are four simple strategies you’ll be glad you followed by the time next holiday season rolls around:  
1 “Preserve fragile ornaments in egg cartons and bubble wrap.
2 ”Keep like with like,” Perrow says. Store similar items, such as family room decorations, together in clearly labeled boxes.
3 To prevent knotted lights, wrap each strand between your hand and elbow, securing with garbage bag twist ties.
4 If you decide against using certain decorations, write notes reminding yourself why and tuck them into the decorations’ storage boxes. If you’re not interested in using them next year, toss them.

A Clean (and Quick) Sweep
Company is coming, and the house is a mess. Don’t panic. Try these tips from personal organizer Nancy McGarity, owner of Real Solutions for Living. And remember: “People are coming to see you, not your house,” she says. “So relax.”
If you have just an hour:
 Sweep the porch and shake out the welcome mat.
 “Just hit the hot spots,” McGarity says. She suggests using antibacterial wipes to shine up the toilet seat, faucets and even the bathroom floors. 
  Throw clutter into a laundry basket and hide it in an unseen room until company leaves.
  Dust off eye-level shelves and tables.
  Fluff pillows in the living room and guest bedroom.
  If you have just a day and guests are staying overnight, do the above, plus:
  Spruce up your kitchen by wiping spills and crumbs from the refrigerator and using antibacterial wipes on countertops.
  Give the bathroom a thorough cleaning.
  Clear some closet or dresser space in the guest bedroom. “Dust off the nightstand and vacuum, but don’t do deep cleaning,” McGarity advises.

5 Gift Giving

Wallet-saving Maneuvers
It’s easy to get caught up in the seasonal shopping frenzy. But we’d like to step in before you’ve spent hundreds of dollars buying gifts for everyone from your mom to your neighbor’s daughter’s kid. It’s all about having a plan before you pull into the mall parking lot, says Phil Weisbrod, financial planner at JFB Financial Services in Brunswick. It’s simple advice. But there are times when we could all use a refresher.
Make a list, check it twice: Instead of trying to please everyone who makes your initial list, why not buy only for those people you really want to give to, rather than the ones you feel obligated to. “Not only will your pocketbook thank you, but your friends will also,” Weisbrod says. Tightening your buying circle will take the pressure off those who feel the need to reciprocate your gift.
Set a budget, stick to it: Set a spending amount for each person on your list and follow it. Individualizing your budget also enables you to easily track how much money you have left.
Save early, forget the credit cards: This is not the season of debt. Once you’ve set a comfortable budget, start saving a few months before you plan to shop, Weisbrod says.

In Case of Emergency, Break Out Gift
It’s a common holiday nightmare: A friend presents you with a gift, but you don’t have anything for her. “People who do business with charm and savvy always have backup gifts,” says Cleveland-native Ann Marie Sabath, founder of Cincinnati-based etiquette firm At Ease Inc. She suggests always keeping a gift in your purse or car for emergencies. Gift cards for coffeehouses and bookstores appeal to nearly everyone. Or keep a new copy of your favorite book wrapped and ready. Tell the recipient you thought she might share your taste.

The Rules of re-gifting
You have enough sweaters to outfit a rugby team. There’s no way you need another picture frame. But dare you go down the road of re-gifting? And, more importantly, if you do, how do you not get busted? “In this day and age, I think it’s very resourceful to be resourceful,” says Catherine Holloway of Etiquette Consulting Services in Lyndhurst.
But she insists you must think about your sweater donor’s feelings before wrapping it up and passing it on. Never, under any circumstance, should you re-gift within the family, she says. “Just stuff it in your drawer because it’s [from] your relative,” Holloway says. However, that gift from your old college friend is perfectly acceptable to pass on to your brother’s girlfriend. Just make sure the person who receives the re-gift will likely never cross paths with the person who originally gave it to you. If you want to play it safe, donate the present to a charity or shelter.

Giving at the Office
Around the office, it can be difficult to bridge the divide between friendships and business relationships. “You’re walking this fine line between being thoughtful versus being too personal,” says Kay Stephan, owner of Classic Protocol in Canal Fulton. She offers these guidelines:
Know your co-workers: Don’t buy a Santa Claus mug for the Jewish secretary or a bottle of wine for your nondrinking cubicle-mate. “No matter what you decide to give a co-worker, make sure to write something special on the gift tag,” Stephan says. “Say, ‘I really enjoy our lunches together,’ or ‘thanks for making coffee every day.’ That just personalizes it.”
Don’t feel obligated: You are not required to buy your boss a gift. If you want to, keep it $50 or less, or team up with co-workers: “It’s really better, if you can, to get a group gift, and you can buy something nicer,” says Stephan, who recommends embossed or engraved gifts.
Be discreet: When giving a gift to one co-worker and not others, hold your gift exchange outside the office to avoid offending those left off your list.
Be courteous: Bosses are not obligated to throw holiday parties for employees. If your boss chooses to do so, show your appreciation by penning a thank-you note.
Share this story: