The Ultimate Christmas To Do List

Some time ago I compiled a list of fun things to do at Christmas.  Which makes for fun browsing, but it was never meant to be a comprehensive "To Do" list ... more of a reminder not to let the holidays get in the way of - well - the holidays!

In honor of there being 100 days until Christmas, I thought this year I'd compile the ultimate, the penultimate, the Christmas to-do list of all Christmas to-do lists. 

I've consulted over 30 online Christmas to-do lists - to include lists compiled by such seriously overachieving magazines as DIY, Southern Living, and Martha Stewart's Living - in order to gather and consolidate all of them into one master list, which I've posted here. 

If that doesn't qualify this as the ULTIMATE Christmas list, then I'm not sure what does!
  1. Prepare
    1. Create a budget & start saving. Nothing ruins the holiday season like having to worry about money. So start thinking now - before the craziness sets in - about what you can really afford, and how you're going to allot the money you have.  Remember that Christmas isn't about how you spend your money, it's about how you spend your time.
    2. Plan your holiday travels. Are you planning to spend the holiday with family in another city or state? Or is this the year you're finally going to see Christmas in New York? The earlier you plan/book any holiday travel (flights, hotels, cars, restaurant reservations), the better the rates you'll lock in ... and the less stress you'll have when the holidays roll around. 
    3. Buy tickets.  If you're going to attend any popular holiday events - The Nutcracker, holiday performances, Hallelujah Chorus sing-alongs, etc. - purchase your tickets now.  When compiling your list of theaters, don't leave out local high school, community center, church, and community symphony/choir/band performances - often these local organizations put on lovely holiday shows!  If you happen to live near our nation's capital, you may want to click here for a list of 25+ ways to celebrate the holidays in Washington D.C.
    4. Assemble your ideas. You've spent all year planning for Christmas, haven't you? Buying magazines stuffed with holiday menus and decorating ideas, pinning scrumptious recipes and adorable craft projects on Pinterest .... Take time now to look through your collection and pick a few that you would really like to do this year ... just don't overdo it!
    5. Initiate (& wrap up) craft projects. Homemade gifts and decorations are a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday, but the last thing you want is to get so behind on your Christmas crafting that you have to miss out on holiday fun to finish what you've started. So take time now to plan and start your holiday projects, with an eye towards finishing everything by the beginning of December.  Click here for a list of 90+ ideas for homemade gifts, or here for a list of great gift basket ideas.
    6. Prepare/print out your to do lists.  This to-do list is a good start, but it's not meant to stand in for your own list.  Use these entries as reminders of the sorts of things you'll want to include on your own personalized list.
    7. Set up your family holiday calendar.  Set aside a calendar and start planning out your holiday season. Of course you'll want to include parties, family events, work events, shows/concerts, craft fairs, church events, and whatnot - but don't neglect to add to your calender important deadlines too: "last date for internet shopping", "finish mailing cards by this date", "finish mailing packages by this date", etc.  You'll save yourself loads of stress if you use your calendar not just for dates, but also for planning, building in time to make sure you can get everything done without rushing. 
    8. Clean your space.  Take time now to declutter your house in preparation for the holidays: store summer clothes/coats, clear away old papers/magazines/detritus, etc.   Are you going to be hosting any guests this holiday season?  Take the time now to prep your guest room, deep-clean your guest bath, and purchase any necessary supplies (extra guest towels, pillows, scented soaps, etc.).   
    9. Assemble Your Supplies. Pull all your holiday things down from the attic and start pre-deploying.  Now's the time to inventory your wrapping supplies and make sure you've got what you need; to think about new decorations you want to acquire; and to repair/replace broken decorations. Take advantage of the fact that stores offer the best selections of wrapping paper, lights, holiday dishwear, holiday linens, and ornaments right after Halloween; inventories dwindle quickly after that.  (Stores don't restock these items; once they're gone, they're gone!)  While you're at it, be sure to wash/iron your holiday linens so they'll be ready to go when you need them.
    10. Gather Addresses.  If you'll be sending out Christmas cards, start updating your list and gathering addresses. This always takes longer than you think it's going to take, and is something you definitely don't want to be messing with later, when things start getting rushed.
    11. Consult the family.  Above all, don't get so wrapped up in your own Christmas planning that you forget the holiday is a family event.  Consult the other members of your family and ask them what they are looking forward to this holiday season. I'll never forget my college student son calling home the week before winter break, exhaused and homesick: "You know what I'm looking forward to most? Lighting a fire in the fireplace and watching football with dad and my uncles."  I didn't even have that on my list - but it sure has been there ever since.
  2. Christmas Cards
    1. Capture your family on film.  Even if you aren't one of the 90% of folks that have switched from traditional Christmas cards to holiday photo cards, you'll still want to avail yourself of this annual excuse to gather the family together for a photo.  In years to come, your annual Christmas photos will serve as an irreplacable family timeline, documenting changes, additions and losses.
    2. Compose your family update.  Call me old-fashioned, but I do enjoy a nice, newsy Christmas letter tucked into the Christmas cards we receive.  Think about it - why are you even bothering to communicate with these people unless you care about what they've been getting up to?  Presumably, they care about what you've been up to as well.  Your newsletter doesn't have to be boring: consider laying out your year as a series of multiple choice questions (with at least one goofy answer per question), or as a true/false quiz, or put the whole thing in rhyme. Be creative!
    3. Make your list & assemble addresses. It's easy to agonize over who to include/not include on your Christmas card list.  Do you keep sending cards to Great Aunt Sue, even though she hasn't reciprocated in the last 5 years?  I recommend taking a moment to think about why you're sending out cards.  If it's just an item on your checklist, or something you do out of guilt, then by all means keep your list short.  If, on the other hand, cards are a way of maintaining contact with people who have been important to you in the past, then maintain a generous list: after all, cards are cheap, but you only get so many great aunts/college roommates/childhood friends in one lifetime, and once you lose touch with them, they're often gone forever.  
    4. Pick out (or make) your cards.  Take the time to pick cards that represent your personality and/or values.  If you've do it right, the people who open your cards won't even have to read the signature; they'll know it's you!
    5. Address & mail your cards.  Labels printed on your computer are tacky, unless your extended family numbers in the 100s. Also tacky: sending out photo cards without bothering to sign them by hand: that pre-printed "Merry Christmas from the Hendersons!" is just phoning it in.  And don't forget the Christmas stamps.
  3. Plan your gift giving
    1. Make your list of gift ideas.  Pretty much every list I consult emphasizes the importance of making a list of gift ideas before you start shopping.  Visiting stores hoping for "inspiration" is a guaranteed time-waster, and often leads to over-spending as well.  I like to think that the time and effort I devote to brainstorming thoughtful gift ideas is the real gift that I give.  Nothing is more pointless than giving gifts chosen because they're popular, convenient, practical, "gag", or because you'd like to get them yourself; conversely, nothing proves that you care about someone like giving them a gift that's chosen to exactly suit their wants/needs/desires.  (The person who buys me a $100 purse obviously hasn't tried to figure out who I am; but the person who buys me that hard-to-find Ray Bradbury paperback from a used book store sure has.)  Don't be afraid to ask people what they want. (Your kids need to start brainstorming for their Santa letters anyway!)  And don't be afraid to think "out of the box" - gifts can be services (a year of mowing!), subscriptions (magazines devoted to favorite interests/hobbies), or even experiences (theater tickets, classes, travel).  Click here for a list of more "beyond the box" gift ideas.  
    2. Complete homemade gifts.  Many homemade gifts can be assembled for pennies, in less time than it takes to drive to the local shopping mall.  Click here for a list of 90+ easy homemade gifts.
    3. Buy online.  Avail yourself of the infinite variety and convenience of online shopping.  It's like the world's largest shopping mall, with every specialty store imaginable.  I've picked up any number of wonderfully quirky gifts this way: Shakespeare bobbleheads, silk chemistry ties, literature-themed jewelry, Civil War uniforms, specialty magazine subscriptions, sports memorabilia, vintage movie posters ....  Plus, you'll discover that many merchants offer free shipping, which means you'll be saving not only time, but money - think of all the gas you'll save, not having to drive around! 
    4. Buy from local merchants & charities.  Kill two birds with one stone by directing your holiday dollars to stores and organizations that will put them to good use - creating jobs in your community, helping others. 
    5. Make shopping fun.  Shopping doesn't have to be a chore.  If you love the frenzy of Black Friday, by all means set your alarm for 4am and enjoy yourself.  If a more relaxed shopping experience is what you crave, then set aside an afternoon to wander your local mall.  And if you're lucky enough to live next to an old town or historic district, even better - festive holiday window displays and decorations are part of what makes this season special. 
    6. Wrap it all up.  Choose a quick/efficient approach, or allot sufficient time to give your creativity free reign - few things look as festive and lovely as exquisitely wrapped gifts. (I like to think of gift wrapping as a "mini craft" - my favorite kind of craft project because you get a lot of satisfaction from less than an hour's work!)  Be sure to mail your long-distance parcels well before the post office's "drop dead date" of Dec 22.
  4. Deck the halls 
    1. Purchase new/replacement decorations.  Now that you've taken an inventory of what you have, start looking for what you need. Don't wait to buy indispensable things like lights, hoping they'll go on sale; once the stores sell out of what they have, they don't restock. This includes any "annual" decorations (ex: White House Christmas ornaments) that you may collect.
    2. Decorate your interior.  Deploy the holiday decorations you have, but don't be afraid to try something new!  Check holiday magazines and Pinterest for inspiration.  It's amazing what you can do with inexpensive accessories like ribbon, candles, cheap ornaments, holiday paper, strings of lights, candy canes, popcorn, gingerbread, cranberries, cinnamon sticks, and other simple items.  If you really want to do it up this year, consider decorating your bathrooms (Christmas towels), bedrooms (Christmas sheets) and/or other non-traditional spaces in your house.
      1. Acquire & set up the tree.  Click here for some ideas on how to create a themed tree.
      2. Hang your stockings with care.  You don't need a fireplace; any wall will do 
      1. Decorate your mantle.  If you're lucky enough to have one, Christmas is a beautiful excuse to create something unique and beautiful.
      2. Don't forget the fauna.  Poinsettia, pinecones, acorns, twigs, evergreen boughs ... arranged artfully, these are some of the most beautiful decorations you'll find - plus, they make your house smell lovely. 
    3. Decorate your exterior.  Hang the lights & deploy those yard ornaments.  Put everything on a timer so you don't have to remember to turn them on and off every day.  While you're at it, why not spend a little time creating a unique door wreath?  Start with something store-bought and then decorate it to suit your tastes.  A great (and inexpensive) way to personalize your decorations every year. 
    4. Decorate your other spaces.  While you're at it, spread the Christmas cheer by hanging an ornament from the mirror of your car and setting up a little tree or draping a little garland at work.
    5. Smells of the season. Don't overlook the importance of aroma to the whole sensory experience that is Christmas.  Set a pot of popourri simmering on the stove, light a scented candle, or cut a vase of fresh evergreen to sit in your living room.
  5. Food, food, food
    1. Plan your holiday eating.  Christmas is not the time to start a new diet!  But neither should it be an excuse to wallow in excess.  Think now about how you'll regulate your holiday eating.
    2. Stock up the pantry.  Before things get too busy, anticipate your food needs and try to stock up: gingerbread house making kits, alcohol, specialty baking essentials (red & green m&ms, parchment paper), ingredients for quick meals.  Oh - and while you're at the store anyway, pick up batteries ... LOTS of batteries!
    3. Plan special meals.  One of the joys of the season is special meals with family and friends.  Some families have a traditional dinner Christmas Eve, others Christmas Day - but there's no reason you can't make as many meals as you want special and memorable.   Click here for a list of 12 traditional holiday menus representing a variety of regions and cuisines - sure to inspire you to create the perfect menus for your own festivities.  And be sure to reserve those hams and turkeys in advance, lest the stores run low!
    4. Create a seasonal tablescape.  You've got all those beautiful Christmas plates, linens, and decorative items; seems a waste to show them off only 1-2 nights a year! Consider creating a holiday tablescape that can be left out for the whole season. 
    5. Enjoy seasonal foods.  One of the many pleasures of the season is the foods available no other time of the year.  Don't let the season slip by without enjoying your favorites, from peppermint lattes to eggnog, wassail to plum pudding, fruitcake to candy canes.  Click here for a list of traditional holiday foods.
    6. Enjoy traditional foods.  Be sure to make time for foods that celebrate your family's heritage and cultural traditions. 
    7. Bake christmas cookies/candies.  Because it just isn't Christmas without the cookies.  Consider doughs that freeze, so you can cook up fresh batches throughout the season.
    8. Gingerbread!  The only food that gets its own checkbox, because Christmas just isn't Christmas without gingerbread houses, gingerbread men, and toasty gingerbread cake with lemon drizzle. 
  6. Take Time With Your Loved Ones 
    1. Observe traditions.  Every family has their own holiday traditions.  These may include special foods/dishes, decorations, ceremonies, events, travel, or family activities. Make a list of important traditions and then put them on the schedule.  In the craziness of the season, it's all too easy to forget to include the things that make the season important.
    2. Make Time for Santa.  If you have children, planning for Santa is a must.  Schedule time to write letters and post them (I hear Santa also enjoys an enclosed hand-drawn picture or two), to visit him (if desired), and to leave out milk/cookies on Christmas Eve.  (Don't forget to add carrots to your shopping list for the reindeer!)
    3. Read holiday stories.  Locate your holiday fiction and create time for reading.  I'm not just talking about "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and other tales meant for children; Charles Dickens wrote a whole bunch of Christmas stories, all of which serve as poignant reminders of the reason for the season.  Another option is to listen to old radio show versions of favorite Christmas stories - Campbell Playhouse's version of A Christmas Carol, Lux Radio Theater's version of It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street - and let stars like Orson Wells, Lawrence Olivier, and Jimmy Stewart do the reading for you.  (If these links don't work, simply Google the titles; copies are posted all over the web.)   
    4. Listen to holiday music.  Haul out your holiday CDs and make new acquisitions as desired.  If this is the year you've decided to go digital, be sure to load all your music onto your iPod and create playlists for the different moods of Christmas - music to party by, music to shop by, music to open presents by, music to watch your tree glowing in the dark by ....  Click here for a list of the most popular Christmas carols and songs.
    5. Watch holiday movies.  There are holiday movies to match every age and mood, from goofy to inspirational.  If you don't make time to watch them now, you'll have to wait a whole additional year!
    6. Make it together.  If possible, find time to create holiday spirit with family and friends.  Bake together, make together, decorate together ... because the memories that include loved ones are the memories that last.
    7. See holiday decorations.  A great way to entertain the whole family for free is to go forth in search of holiday decorations. Pile in the car and drive around the streets in your community,  Visit shopping malls to gape at the decorations there, or take in a holiday light show at a local park.  We like to rank the exterior decorations on a scale of 0 (aka "grinch") to 5 (aka "the full Santa"), with an automatic deduction of 1 point for net lights.
    8. Take time to play.   Back in the day, Christmas was all about games.  Back then they favored Blind Man's Bluff and 20 Questions, which are still fun today, don't get me wrong ... but feel free to update the tradition by hauling out board games from the closet, doing puzzles together, playing charades, going caroling, or hitting the ice skating rink.  The idea is to spend happy time together, for come January, when those bills start arriving, you may not be in the mood!
    9. Talk to each other.  No time of the year lends itself to the sharing of oral stories and traditions like Christmas.  It's important to make time to retell all the old stories; it's also worthwhile to make the effort to sit next to a family member you don't usually spend as much time with (especially older relatives) and coax them into sharing memories you may not have heard before. 
    10. Laugh!  I'm constantly taken aback at the dour look of people shopping, decorating, baking, etc. Stop taking the season so seriously!  Find the humor in even your least favorite traditions (like that single strand of Christmas lights that keeps going dead everytime you turn your back on it).  Listen to funny Christmas songs.  Watch goofy internet memes. (I'm particularly partial to "The 12 Gays of Christmas" and the silent monks doing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, but there are plenty of others out there.)  If necessary, force yourself to take a seat at the mall and laugh at the people who are even more frantic than you.  
    11. Spend romantic time with your spouse. Stop splitting up your chores long enough to take a horse-drawn carriage ride, share dinner at a nice restaurant with picture windows overlooking holiday decorations, or enjoy a furtive smooch under the mistletoe.
    12. Reach out to Family & Friend.  So you've bought your tickets to New Mexico to visit his family ... but what about all your other relatives? Spend time now thinking about how you'll reach out to all the members of your family this season.  For folks too far away to visit, consider cards, phone calls, etc.  For folks who live closer, get off your couch and visit! Doesn't have to be anything formal - prepare a tray of cookies and use it as an excuse to pay your respects, complement their decorations, and ooh/aah at their trees.  (I love seeing how other people decorate their trees - so often it's a dead-on reflection of the family's personality!)
    13. Exploit the internet.  The internet is good for more than online shopping.  Consider supplementing/replacing old holiday traditions with new traditions ... like maintaining a holiday blog, sending out online cards (maybe 12 of them, for the 12 days of Christmas!), and/or daily posts/tweets related to the season - charities you're donating to, top ten lists, funny internet memes ... whatever your family will find meaningful.
  7. Look the part
    1. Deck your Dermis. How frustrating is it to realize after the holidays that you've forgotten to wear that adorable green/black/red plaid skirt and sequined red sweater that you purchased specially for the purpose on sale last January?  Go through your waredrobe now and pull out all those outfits intended for the season.  (Yes, I mean those ugly holiday sweaters too!)  And don't forget to dig through your jewelry box for novelty earrings, bracelets, and earrings.
    2. Plan special outfits. Plan now for any special outfits you'll need over the course of the season.  Matching Santa hats for the annual family photo?  Formal outfits for the children for Midnight Mass?  Matching PJs for Christmas morning?  Buy what you need now, while stores still have plenty of selection in stock. (Don't even try finding a Santa hat the week before Christmas Eve!)
  8. Party! 
    1. Stock up on hostess gifts.  Don't get caught 30mins before a party, scrambling through your shelves in search of a suitable hostess gift!  Purchase and wrap them ahead of time; then all you have to worry about is where you put the extra batteries for your Christmas novelty sweater with the flashing red Rudolf nose.
    2. Plan for work-related holiday events.  Some companies ignore the season, others go full-Santa starting from the first day of December.  If you're affiliated with one of the latter, you'll need decorations for your workspace, homebaked goods for the cookie exchange, a special outfit for the company holiday party, and a selection of small gifts for the Secret Santa gift exchange.  Don't wait until the last minute - start your planning now!
    3. Plan for family/friend holiday events.  Many holiday parties/open houses/events are annual.  You know the invitation is coming, so why wait?  Start preparing for them now.
    4. Be the host.  Go ahead, host a gathering!  There's no better way to make sure everyone you care about is included in your holiday festivities.  Pick a party that suits your "mojo" - everything from an elaborate "Dickens Christmas" dinner party if you're the Martha Stewart type, to an "ugliest holiday sweater" if you're more the Simpsons type.  Click here for a list of unique Christmas party ideas.
  9. Celebrate with your commuity
    1. Attend local events. Every community, no matter how large or small, offers holiday festivities: parades, tree lightings, appearances by Santa, hayrides/sleighrides, concerts, performances (ex: Nutcracker), model train shows, sing-alongs, living nativities, light shows, etc.  Grab your calendar, hop online, and start making notes about events you may want to attend.  (Be sure to check local school and shopping-mall scheduled events as well.)
    2. Attend local craft shows.  There's something special about homemade foods/crafts at Christmas.  If you don't have time to make your own, plan on attending a local craft show or two.  Not only will you acquire one-of-a-kind items to keep or give as gifts, but you'll be supporting local merchants/organizations as well.
    3. Visit historical sites.  If you're lucky enough to live near a historic site or historic district, be sure to check out their plans for the holidays.  Often these sites offer unique holiday decorations and entertainments.   
  10. Give Thanks/Be Charitable
    1. Remember those less fortunate than you.  This is something you should be doing all year, but charities make it extra-easy during the holiday season.  So go ahead: slip a donation in the kettle, donate clothes/supplies to a local homeless shelter, help restock your local food bank. Scrooge would approve.
    2. Remember the children.  Donate to Toys for Tots, or pick a child from a local Angel Tree, or - better yet - do both
    3. Remember our servicemen/women.  Send packages, food, and/or cards of thanks.
    4. Remember service providers.  Figure out how to best and most appropriately acknowledge the support of your local firemen, police officers, paperboys, and waste workers.
    5. Don't forget the critters! In many parts of the U.S., winter is a harsh season for the animals.  Extend your charity to our furry friends: feed the birds, rabbits, and squirrels.
    6. Engage in random acts of kindness.  Nothing provides a "quick fix" of good feeling like doing something kind.  Some of my "go to" acts of kindness include leaving coupons for items next to the items themselves in the store, allowing people with 1-2 items to cut in front of me in line, helping people shovel snow from their cars in parking lots, and giving up my seat on the metro to people who look more worn out than me. Technically, you can't "plan" random acts of kindness - but you can start brainstorming ideas so that you are ready to avail yourself of opportunities when they present themselves.  (Click here for a list of 70+ Random Acts of Kindness!)
    7. Wish people a Merry Christmas.  It's a little thing, but small gestures have a way of paying themselves forward.  Your smile may end up cheering up more than just the person it was aimed at; it will certainly cheer you up!
  11. The Reason for the Season
    1. Participate in church activities.  Check your church's schedule and make a note of upcoming events: concerts, activities, special masses.  
    2. Visit a nativity.  Many churches and civic organizations sponsor nativity displays; some even offer "live" nativities, featuring living animals and human players.
    3. Celebrate the Birth of Christ.  Plan now for how your family will celebrate and Christ's birthday and give thanks for the blessings of the past year.
  12. Capture the memories
    1. Organize your photos and videos.  Once the season is over, you'll want to capture your memories before they start to fade.  Organize/print photos and photos into albums (paper or digital); consider ways to post your photos/videos online so that they can be shared with family and friends.  But your work isn't done yet; don't forget to annotate your photos so that you capture the unique moments and memories that made the holiday season special.
    2. Create a scrapbook.  Better yet, lump together photos, ticket stubs, invitations, programs, sheet music, Christmas cards/letters and other epherma from the holiday, add journaling, and create a holiday scrapbook.   Sure to be a family keepsake for generations to come.

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