Most years, people vow that they’re going to really get organized for the holidays. They have great intentions, make lists, but then end up scattered and run off their feet when December rolls around. All the planning in the world can’t save you if you start it on December 15.
The key to a successful holiday season that you actually enjoy is to start planning well in advance — even before Thanksgiving. That way, you’ll know exactly what you need to do, and you’ll never have to step foot in a mall the week before Christmas ever again. And trust us, what is holiday joy if not the knowledge that all your presents are bought and wrapped, and all you have to do is sit by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate?
Here are a few tried-and-true tips to help you get a jump on the holiday season this year.
Sit down and make a holiday to-do list
This is the most important step, and it’s something that you cannot succeed without.
As early as possible — preferably during October, or even September — sit down with a calendar, a computer, or a pen and notepad, and plan out your holiday season. Decide whether you’re going to send out cards, who you want to send them to, and whether you’re going to write them out yourself. Write down deadlines for when you’re going to solicit new addresses for the cards, buy your tree, and finish present shopping. When you write the task down, make sure you include a hard deadline. If there’s no deadline, it may as well be a wish list, rather than a to-do list.
Make a gift list, and remember to include last-minute gifts too
While you’re making your holiday to-do list, this is a great time to start your gift list. Write down everyone that you think needs a present, and make sure to leave a space so you can go back and add any initial ideas that you may have. Don’t just write down your family members — make sure you include anyone that you’ll need to buy presents for, like your child’s teachers or an in-office Secret Santa gift. It’s also a good idea to purchase several all-purpose gifts like candles, bottles of wine, or boxes of candy that you can use for last-minute hostess gifts.
Get a list of holiday mail-by dates from your local post office
If you’re planning on mailing anything between November and December, especially if it’s a package, it’s a good idea to get a list of holiday mail-by dates from your local post office or online. This list lays out the various mailing deadlines, depending on where your package is going.
If you have family in places like Asia or Africa and don’t want to pay a fortune in express postage, you’ll need to have your packages in the mail by the end of November. If you want to avoid long lines at the post office, look into buying a postal scale, so you can purchase postage online, and ship from your home.
Get photos and cards done early
USPS holiday mail-by dates can come up quicker than you think. As such, most people recommend mailing holiday cards before the end of November, and by December 14 at the very latest.
If you’re planning on making custom cards with holiday photos, it’s a good idea to book your photographer early; some families do it as early as mid-September. If you don’t mind an older photo, use one from last year’s celebrations. If you want to have two weeks to fill out and address your cards, you’ll need to start planning for your holiday mailing as early as mid-October. If you leave it any later, you’ll be extremely crunched for time before you have to mail them out.
Decide what you’d like to host this year
If your family holiday traditions aren’t set in stone, or if a different person hosts every year, it’s a good idea to decide on that as soon as possible. Don’t wait until everyone is full and tipsy during Thanksgiving dinner to make an agreement on who is hosting Christmas this year — make those decisions early, so everyone can plan ahead.
If you’re interested in having a holiday party or want to suggest a new tradition to your friend group, put that suggestion out there early on, so your friends can hold the date.
Book travel as early as possible
If you live apart from family members, or have decided to take a holiday instead of celebrating Christmas at home, it’s a good idea to book travel as early as possible.
Many travel experts suggest booking in September, in order to secure a seat on an optimal flight. You should definitely have your flights booked before November 25 because at that point, prices will start to climb. There are some adrenaline junkies that suggest waiting to book until a day or two before Christmas, but that’s extremely risky. You can save money by flying in a few days early or staying later as flights in the week between Christmas and the new year are less expensive.
Do a baking weekend and fill your freezer
If you love holiday baking, but don’t like the stress that comes with having to cook a few different things at once in order to maximize your time, you should try and get as much baking as possible done in advance. There are many recipes that can easily be stored in the freezer until it’s time to bake them up.
For example, roll and slice cookies, pie crust, and loaves of bread can easily be mixed, shaped, and frozen. Then, all you’ll need to do is let them thaw on the counter or pop them into the oven and bake from frozen.
Make large batches of freezer meals for days you’re too tired to cook
Another way that you can save yourself some money and cut down on stress during the holiday season is to mix up several batches of freezer meals and stash them in the freezer for busy December evenings. These meals are great if you’re prepping the house for a party, and don’t have time to cook, or just need a quiet night at home. Many families spend the holiday running between commitments, so it’s nice to have some healthy, ready-made meals available.
Pick up essentials for guests on sale throughout the year
Lots of people host guests for the holidays, and often harried hosts will find themselves driving to a store to buy spare toiletries or extra toilet paper the night before company arrives. Save yourself the hassle by doing an inventory of your guest room before company arrives and taking advantage of sales to stock your cupboards.
Arrange to purchase your ham or turkey in advance
If you regularly make a show-stopping meat dish like a roast turkey or ham for Christmas and want to have access to the best the store has to offer, it’s a good idea to purchase your meat well in advance of the holiday. Small butcher’s shops are a great place to find top-quality meat, but you’ll likely have to visit in October or November to secure the choicest cuts.
Make homemade gifts early
If you’re planning on making homemade gifts like jams, candies, or other crafts, it’s a good idea to get that out of the way early. There’s nothing worse than going back to the store on Christmas Eve because you’ve burned the toffee or broken a flat of mason jars. Handmade gifts are a beautiful gesture, but they’re not worth the stress if you’re trying to cram a last-minute evening of jam-making or pickling into an already packed schedule. Plus, if you do it in the fall, you can take advantage of produce like apples, cucumbers, pears, and pumpkins that are being harvested fresh from the fields.
Make a holiday playlist
To get yourself in the holiday mood, make a playlist and have it ready to go for December 1. While you’re putting up decorations, baking cookies, or wrapping presents, it’s nice to have music that will get you in the mood. Plus, by making your own playlist rather than relying on Spotify or another music service, you’ll guarantee that you have all your family’s favorite tunes.