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How to deal with holiday stress

In the final part of the week-long series, “Real Simple Holidays,” Gail Blanke, author of a monthly column for Real Simple magazine, offers advice on how to forget the stress and make the most of your holidays.

Let go of perfectionThink “easy” ... smart people make things complicated. Look for the shortest route to getting anything done and let go of doing things perfectly. Involve as many people as you can, especially your children, in decorating the tree, cooking Christmas dinner, serving food and wrapping gifts. It will make them feel wonderful. When our oldest daughter, Kate, was very small I asked her to help decorate the tree. She hung up all sorts of ornaments and garland — but all on one side. We were having a big party and I debated for about one minute whether I should sort of balance things out to make the tree look better. Of course, I decided to go with an imperfect tree and a delighted little girl who'd helped decorate it. I remember her pointing out the part of the tree she'd decorated to a little pal with great pride. And I remember that tree better than I remember all the others that came before and after it.

It's really not perfection that delights us; it's what's real and honest. And it's tough being around martyrs. We all know those women who completely exhaust themselves doing everything perfectly and never have fun at their own parties and neither do we.

Roll with the punches
When it doesn't go according to your best-laid plans, roll with it. One of the best dinner parties we ever gave was out on the terrace under a canopy in the pouring rain. We didn't have room for everyone inside so we had to make it work outside even though there was lighting and thunder.

No one's ever forgotten that party and we gave it over 20 years ago. Anything can happen. Maybe someone's plane will be hours late, but you'll hold dinner for them because being all together is more important than being perfect. One of the best Thanksgivings we had was when our hosts called at the last minute to say that their ovens had both broken down and asked to come to our house to finish cooking the dinner. Then we brought everything back to their house, joined everyone else and had a fabulously wonderful time. We love being with people who just laugh when things go “wrong” and go with it. Somehow it breaks the ice and makes everyone feel closer together and more important.

Embrace the momentLook for the delight and the unexpected. Be spontaneous. Stop looking at your to-do list and look for the magic. Maybe you suddenly decide to join a group of carolers or attend a tree lighting ceremony or stop into a church because the music sounds so wonderful. Give a gift to delight, not to impress. The best gift I ever gave anyone was to our younger daughter, Abigail, when she was four years old. She'd watched the movie “Splash” a million times, had a “Little Mermaid” doll and was committed to becoming a mermaid herself. I asked a costume designer I knew to make her a mermaid costume, complete with a beautiful, sparkly tail and a halter top made of shells. I'll never forget the look on her face when Abigail opened her present. She simply couldn't believe it. She spent all Christmas day in the bath tub. It sure wasn't the most expensive gift I ever gave her and it wasn't on her “list” but it was certainly the most wonderful.

Do something for someone elseDo something you've never done before for someone else. Take time out from shopping and decorating and get your family together to volunteer at a local church or community center to serve food to the homeless, read stories or decorate — anything that will make a difference in someone else's life. It's nice to see up close and personal the difference you're making. And for those who can get down during the holidays, studies show that your spirits rocket right up when you help others.

Start a new tradition
This is my favorite idea. Every Christmas Eve, the four of us recount each other's “defining moments” of the last year. A defining moment is when you found something inside yourself you didn't know you had and you pulled it out to save the day. It's a moment when you decided to do something (or not to do something) that was really hard or really unpopular. Or, a moment when you took a big fat chance or took a stand or whatever, and it all paid off in the end.

It's always a time after which you never think of yourself in quite the same way again. Sharing these moments with each other and about each other can be really moving and also hilariously funny. For us, it just makes Christmas all the more lovable.

Gail Blanke writes a monthly column for Real Simple magazine called “The Motivator.” She is a personal and executive coach, a motivational speaker and the author of “Between Trapezes: Flying Into a New Life With the Greatest of Ease.” The mother of two daughters, she lives with her husband in New York City.