The holiday getting together guide

Helpful hints for happier holidays — whether you're hosting or being hosted

Nothing says holiday like a bustling house full of relatives. But all the sweetness of a family visit can quickly turn sour when little cousins start bickering, the blow-up mattress springs a leak, and Uncle Charlie uses up all the hot water. The good news is that with a little planning, you can save your guests — and your family — a sleighful of yuletide hassle. Here’s how.

Playing host

If the festivities are at your house this year, you’ll soon be prepping like mad: cleaning, grocery shopping, baking, digging out that fold-up cot…. Before panic sets in, follow these tips to keep it simple.

Communicate If you’re expecting a full house and are worried about your guests’ comfort, now’s the time to voice your concern, says Louise Fox, a Toronto etiquette expert and owner of The Etiquette Ladies. “If it’s going to be crowded, mention this to your guests beforehand: ‘We’re looking forward to your visit, and although we don’t have a guest bedroom, we think you will be very comfortable on the pullout sofa in the family room.’ If they’re uncomfortable with this idea, they can make alternative arrangements such as spending the night at a nearby motel.” If your guests are bringing the kids, don’t forget to discuss the house rules so everyone’s on the same page. You’ll also want to make sure sleeping arrangements have been sorted out before little relatives arrive, so there’s no fighting about who gets which cot.

Make your home inviting Sure, daily bouquets of fresh flowers and chocolates on pillows are lovely touches, but your home isn’t a five-star hotel. Guests will appreciate the basics. Leave them extra pillows, blankets, a bedside lamp or nearby light, books and magazines. And while they’ll probably bring their own toiletries, Fox says, it’s a welcoming gesture to provide the little amenities, perhaps a few toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss, soap, small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, hand lotion, tissues, pain reliever, extra toilet paper and plenty of clean towels.

Prepare for little ones If you have tots of your own, you’re likely ready to host other young kids — your house is childproofed and you have all the gear guests will need. If your kids are older, suggest that your guests bring their own crib, playpen, car seat and high chair. If they’re travelling by plane and can’t tote everything, try borrowing from neighbours or look for places where you can rent what they need. There are lots of online companies across Canada that specialize in baby-equipment rentals, such as weetravel.ca and littletraveller.ca. As for childproofing, Fox suggests asking your visitors to bring their own gates, but hitting a department store for plug protectors and cupboard locks, and putting breakables and valuables on shelves out of children’s reach. You might want to move your glass-top coffee table and houseplants until tots have gone.

Keep kids busy While visitors should have their kids bring a book, game, music or DVDs, you can easily prepare activities too. Head to the dollar store or your local art supplies shop and pick up a few colouring books, crayons, markers and stickers. Go to the toy store for board games and puzzles. Rent a few holiday-themed classics (such as A Christmas Story and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) or take the gang to a yuletide flick at the theatre. Bake sugar cookies or buy a ready-made gingerbread house and have the kids decorate the treats with icing, sprinkles and candy. And don’t forget to throw in some large-muscle action: Get everyone bundled up and enjoy an afternoon of tobogganing, make a snowman in the front yard, go skating at the local arena or book a couple of lanes and have a bowling tournament. If the kids are into video games, be sure the adults have discussed what, when and how long they’re allowed to play. While it’s important to keep young guests occupied, don’t get bogged down trying to plan every second of the trip; you and your visitors are on vacation and everyone will appreciate a little downtime (and alone time) to read a book or even just go for a walk.

Away from home

Make a list (and check it twice) of all the gear you’ll need to schlep with you, including the kids’ suitcases and all your prettily wrapped presents (unless you’ve cleverly shopped online and had the presents delivered — see Easy Holiday Shopping), before hitting the road to celebrate the season at your favourite aunt’s house. Here’s what to consider before you leave home.

Call your host Ask your hosts about their house rules so you can brief your kids and explain how things will be different than at your house. Fox says it’s also the time to find out what you should bring to help, such as bedding and towels. Don’t forget to ask about planned activities in case you need to bring dressy outfits or sports equipment. You might also mention what your gang enjoys doing; don’t be shy to suggest an afternoon of snowshoeing if it’s one of your family’s favourite winter activities.

Bring everything you need Socks? Check. Underwear? Check. Warm jammies? Check. You already know how to cover the packing basics, but don’t forget other important bits and pieces. For example, is there a special bedtime book, blanket or binkie that will make sleeping away from home easier for your child? And don’t forget yourself — nothing says “ahhhh” like your own pillow. Bringing along a picky eater or two? Warn your hosts, and either pack your choosy chewer’s no-fail foods or be prepared to do a little grocery shopping when you arrive.

Find the easiest way to get there Sometimes the most stressful part of going away during the holidays isn’t listening to Uncle Bob’s never-ending tales — it’s the actual travelling. Make it easy and book early. “The holidays are the most expensive and busiest time of year to travel; airlines and trains always sell out early on,” says Claire Newell, family travel expert and president of Jubilee Travel in Burnaby, BC. Other hints:

• When booking tickets, try to leave a few days before school ends, on a weekday, or on December 25 (it can be cheaper because people generally don’t want to travel on Christmas Day).

• Choose non-stop flights and try to pick a departure time that coincides with your children’s sleep schedules. “With my kids, I’ll choose the red-eye and get them to cuddle in and go to sleep,” Newell says.

• Busy kids are happy kids, so pack toys, books, games, DVDs, batteries and healthy snacks. And let them walk around, in the airport or at rest stops, so they get nicely tuckered out.

Be a good guest Want to be invited back? Here’s how to leave a good impression:

• Make a meal, ask your kids to set the table, do the dishes, run errands — help your hosts as much as you can.

• Offer to take the host family for dinner or an outing at your expense, and don’t expect to be entertained every second of the trip, advises Fox.

• At the end of your stay, tidy up your room, strip the beds and collect used towels.

• Leave a thank-you note and a token of your appreciation before you leave, or send a little something when you get home.

• If all went well this year, offer to host the big get-together next year!

Meet in the middle

If all the organizing, cleaning, cooking, packing and travelling seem too daunting, consider alternative arrangements. Here are some ideas:

Warm up to Christmas Get everyone on board for a trip someplace warm over the holidays.
The fact that you’ll be on vacation will make it the most hassle-free holiday you’ve ever had. Plus, it’ll make a great gift for the whole family.

Meet at a hotel Stay for a night or two at a hotel somewhere in the middle and go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner.

Wait till January Travel will be cheaper, everyone’s more relaxed and it’ll give the kids something to look forward to after the holidays.

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