It's countdown time. The holidays are almost here. If you're organized, you might be done shopping, decorating and planning. If you're like me, however, you're wishing for elves to help you with your lengthy to do list. Rather than stress out, I'm looking for ways to simplify. Here are my favorite shortcuts for the five top holiday tasks.

1. Gift giving

To simplify gift giving, some parents are using the 4-gift formula. I've seen various versions of this on Mommy blogs. The basic method has children receiving four gifts: one they want, one they need, one to wear and one to read. Another version has gifts representing the gifts the wise men brought, with one extra for Santa Claus to bring.

Gift cards may be considered a cop-out by some, but I know many people (myself included) who love to receive them. Shopping online, giving cash and buying the same gift for multiple people are all good ideas, as well. My family decided to do away with a tradition of extended family gift exchanges. Although I'm a little sad about it, it does make my shopping list shorter. For neighbors and teachers, scour Pinterest for easy ideas and cute free printables.

2. Treats and eats

I enjoy giving holiday treats to friends, neighbors and teachers. My kitchen turns into an assembly line as I make fudge, cookies and toffee. If I don't have time to make everything by hand, I do an assortment of store bought chocolates and cookies mixed in with homemade treats. Putting goodies in a cute tin or bag makes them seem more special. A quick hand-written note personalizes each one.

Holiday meals can take all day to cook. Simplify by eating one big dinner on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, not both. If you celebrate Hanukkah, the thought of eight nights of holiday cooking might be overwhelming. Pick one or two nights to focus on, or make one special food each night. Most visitors are willing to help prepare food, so make assignments to share the workload. I always plan to get take-out or eat at a restaurant after the holidays so I can relax, too.

3. Cards

If sending our Christmas cards is just one thing too many for you, try sending New Year's cards, instead. I have one friend who has decided to send her family update at Valentine's Day. I look forward to receiving it every year.

Technology can make things very simple. Websites like Shutterfly and Snapfish allow you to upload your photos then drag and drop them into pre-made card designs. If you don't even want to bother with snail mail at all, send an email version of your Christmas newsletter to your family and friends or post an extended update on your favorite social media site. Connecting with friends and family is a good tradition that doesn't have to be too difficult.

4. Decorations

This year, my husband and daughter brought home an extra-large tree. They worked for about three hours to wrestle it into the house. It was not simple, but decorating can be. Focus on the things that mean the most to you, like a favorite nativity set or your grandmother's menorah, and then plan your decorating around those things. If you have limited storage space and budget, do what you can.

Children enjoy being involved in decorating and love to make decorations. I ask my children to make snowflakes for windows or draw pictures for the kitchen. If we are not spending time in our own home over the holidays, we often pare down the decorations or put up a much smaller tree.

5. Activities

Last week my husband thoughtfully asked if I wanted to go see a holiday play; something I'd enjoy much more than he. I declined, however because our schedule is already too full. I'm considering blocking out hours of time with "family game night," "read Christmas books," "make cookies" and the other things I really want to do during the holiday season. Here are some other ideas on instant stress relievers.

One way to make sure your holidays aren't overscheduled, but no treasured traditions are overlooked, is to have a scheduling meeting at the beginning of December. Ask each family member what they most want to do, then put it on the calendar. You might find that no one really cares about a holiday concert, but everyone wants to look at Christmas lights around town.

No matter how simple you make things, the holidays always seem to be a busy and hectic time. Be sure to make time for quiet pondering and peaceful moments. I like to think about what makes holidays special and why we celebrate them. For me, it's time with family, the love of God, the beauty of tradition and the wonder of each season.

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