The hitched girl’s holiday survival guide

This is my Christmas fantasy: I find one-of-a-kind gifts for everyone on my list. I ice-skate with my son, shop with my mom and curl up with my husband in front of a blazing fire. I painstakingly wrap presents. I make both sets of parents happy. They say as much. Now for the real version: I try hard to find the perfect gifts, but wind up spending hours at the mall getting nothing except a lip gloss for me. The only time my guy and I are together in front of a fire, there are in-laws wedged between us. And I race from one set of parents to the other, worrying that both sides are feeling slighted. If you love the holidays but find them a wee bit stressful, you're only human.

"The most together women in the happiest marriages tend to feel tense this time of year," says Jodi R. R. Smith, an etiquette coach in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and author of "The Girl's Guide to Social Savvy."

You want to make the holidays magical for each other and your kids, but that can mean managing dueling family demands, sticky gift situations and all the wifely duties you want to master, such as baking and wrapping gifts. What's a hitched girl to do? Read on for Redbook's real-world strategies that will help you sail through the top challenges so you (and he) can kick back and savor the season together. Stressful situation #1: Time wars between your parents and in-lawsHow do you make sure your parents and his both get their fill of you without missing out on time to bond with your guy? Pull out your calendar — right now — and block out "just us" time. "The big mistake we all make this time of year is that instead of planning what we really want to do, we spend all our time reacting to family obligations that are sprung on us and saying yes on the spot," says Smith. When you pencil in couple time, you can make it a bonding night all around: Off-load the kids on your in-laws with cookies to decorate while you two slip out together. When both sets of parents expect face-time on the same day, though, make peace with the idea that you can't please everyone. "It's normal to feel pulled in many directions," says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., author of When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People. But don't be tempted to hit up both homes — or be guilted into it. "You'll be tense before you even get to the first house because you know you have to leave, and everyone will be cranky at the second one," says Smith.

A better idea: Decide to give each family a four-hour dinner block on different days so you have meaningful time around the dinner table rather than a bunch of pop-ins. Or trade off the holidays — Thanksgiving at your family's, December holidays at his — and switch next year. You may still get a comment from a left-out relative.

"If you ignore a remark from your mother-in-law, she's more likely to keep up the guilt trip," says Smith. "It's better to say, 'We'd love to spend more time with you, too — let's pick a date in January.'" In the meantime, you'll be at peace knowing you did what's fair and what's right for you.

Stressful situation #2: Blending holiday traditionsMaybe your family exchanges one significant present, but your husband's swaps a bunch of little joke gifts. Or his expects holiday meals to start and end early, whereas your clan complains if they're asked to roll out of bed before noon. The result? You can end up feeling like your traditions are getting trampled on. To minimize the misunderstandings and make sure your childhood rituals don't end up on the cutting-room floor, have convos with your husband — both in advance and as plans evolve — to decide how you two are going to do things.

Some key points to negotiate: when to open gifts, whether or not to attend religious services, when to eat — and how formal the meal will be. "Agree that you're not going to fight about whose family is right," says Felder. This lets you negotiate the style and specifics of your holiday in private and go public with a united front. It's best to let your husband play bad cop with his family (and vice versa). So when, say, your sister-in-law mentions she'll stop by after breakfast on Christmas, your husband should chime in, "Actually, we decided we're going to hang out in our pj's in the morning and have everyone over around two." Stressful situation #3: Buying seven teacher giftsTeachers are underpaid, and you're so grateful for all they do — but does that mean you have to scour the mall and blow major dough for five, six or seven gifts? No, says Nancy Tuckerman, co-author of "The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette."

"I think teacher gifts are a little bit of a bribe, and it's impolite to buy for one without buying for all," she says. Instead, lobby the class mom to arrange one gift from the whole group. Every parent contributes a set amount, say $10, and the teacher gets one substantial gift certificate (which is a whole lot more useful than 25 "World's Best Teacher" mugs). For after-school teachers and tutors, a $5 Starbucks gift card is a good (not to mention simple) option. You can also write tutors and others who have really helped your kid a thank-you note — or if your child is old enough, have her write it. "A handwritten note is something any teacher would keep and value," says Smith.

Stressful situation #4: Dealing with big-spending girlfriendsSure, it may make you feel awkward to give a wee gift and get a whopper back in return. But you shouldn't feel bad or make excuses for your gift, says Tuckerman. "It's not the price tag, it really is the thought, and you've been thoughtful," she says. Remember, too, that your single girlfriends probably have fewer gifts to buy, so you shouldn't feel guilty. And there's no point in trying to persuade your Oprah-esque friend to be less giving next year. "Some people are incredibly generous, and they're doing it because it makes them feel good," says Smith. "The most gracious thing you can do is let that person know how much you like the gift."

Stressful situation #5: Getting the gift you really want from your husbandIt's surprisingly stressful to get a gift you hate from the man you love. You wonder: Does he not really know me? Or does he just have bad taste? Is there any way to hint and get what you want, short of saying, "Go to Banana Republic and buy me the suede jacket in the window?" (which would make you feel more than a little high-maintenance). Since most men are notoriously bad at taking a hint, you have to be somewhat direct. Pick your favorite store, designer or even jewelry or handbag counter and tell him you'd love anything from there. Or, as Smith suggests, "Write him a list and leave it on his pillow: Dear Santa, I've been a very good girl this year, and I'd like..." Also fun: Cut him out a ransom note with a picture(s) of what you'd love. If you hint in a flirty way, you won't take the romance out of gift-giving. And really, guys do want to give presents you'll love, so you're just helping him out.

Stressful situation #6: Taking care of domestic dutiesCookies to bake, gifts to wrap, cards to send — holiday prep can send even the most domestically inclined among us into a panic. Take a deep breath and try to keep perspective. "You shouldn't feel bogged down by something that is supposed to be joyous," says Donna Lang, author of Gift for Giving, "so if it isn't joyous, you're doing too much." Since there isn't time to do it all, "focus on the two or three holiday activities you love," suggests Donna Smallin, author of "The One-Minute Organizer." To lighten your load more, we found creative shortcuts for a few holiday must-do's:

Holiday cookies, courtesy of Rachael Ray, host of the Food Network's "30 Minute Meals": "If you're making cookies with kids, it's all about the decorating anyway. So buy slice-and-bake sugar cookies, frost them with simple buttercream frosting — one part butter to one part confectioners' sugar — and decorate with Froot Loops, mini chocolate chips and sprinkles."

Signature wrapping, courtesy of Donna Lang, author of "Gift for Giving": "Pick one signature wrap and use only that. I love cellophane bags, which you can buy in bulk at a floral supply store. They're the easiest thing in the world. You can twist any gift in tissue paper, plop it in a cello bag, tie it with ribbon or a piece of twine, and it looks like you slaved over it. And, there's no paper to spread out, so it's great if you have kids or pets. I also love gold metallic pens, because they look so festive and save you from buying cards. You can write right on the bags!"

Holiday cards, courtesy of Donna Smallin, author of "The One-Minute Organizer": "Too many people do cards out of a sense of obligation. So ask yourself, 'Why am I sending cards? Is it because they sent me a card, or because this is how I stay in touch with these people?' Before starting, pare down your list. Maybe you'll skip folks you'll get to say 'Happy Holidays' to in person. I also recommend keeping a spreadsheet of names and addresses and printing your labels. This saves time and gives you a head start for next year. Then have a card party: Invite over a few girlfriends or your sister, put out snacks, and everyone does their cards and chats. That way, writing cards becomes a great excuse to get together."        

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