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Merry and Bright

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It's the most wonderful time of the year… or so goes the popular song.

When I was at lunch with two friends recently, the subject of the holidays arose, and we got around to talking about how many people -- deep-down — dreaded or disliked Christmas. Why couldn't we be like that perfect family down the street? You know the household — the folks with warm-hued spotlights illuminating the perfectly placed wreaths and a single candle at each window; indoors a wood fire crackling as carols are sung around the tuned piano; steaming gingerbread coming out of the oven ready for unannounced guests who, of course, are warmly received.

When I grow up, I want to be like those people.

But with Thanksgiving behind us and the countdown under way, I realize that, for yet another year, I'm not among their number. So in the spirit of better organization and a more positive mindset, I contacted a number of folks who know how to handle the holiday season.



Strengthen Family Ties

Dr. Alan D. Entin, a Richmond psychologist and a nationally known expert in family relationships, offers his advice on how to handle the stress that can come with seeing family and friends:

Holidays can be stressful because in many cases we haven't seen certain friends and family members for some time. This is our one shot to get it right: This can be a negative because we haven't gotten it right before. So keep expectations realistic.

Maybe a divorce or death has recently occurred, and this can be painful. Talk about it and start the process of starting new traditions.

If you know there are issues with family members, talk about it in advance and spell out expectations on behavior: Make it clear you're not going to argue in front of guests. But never take on the impossible task of changing someone else's life: Don't "helicopter," don't hover. You can love family and friends, but you can't change them. And remember to face up to your part of the real, or perceived, problem.

If you don't have a family, or choose not to be with family, friends can be a substitute family. Also, if seeing family is too stressful, volunteer at a homeless program or at a hospital. But welcome the opportunity to see friends and family. Concentrate on their strengths and what makes them unique. Turn stressed around: It's desserts when spelled backward.



Downscale Your Decorating

Todd Yoggy is an interior designer whose home always looks spare yet elegant at Christmas. He also decorates the 20-foot tree each year at Dover Hall, the opulent Goochland County home of Kathy and Dennis Pryor. What is Yoggy's advice for getting the house in order and decorating for the season? He is blunt:

Purge. Throw away all the crap you've accumulated during the past year. Every year people buy new crap. Of course, don't give away the heirlooms.

Keep decorating simple. Less is more. All you need is a wreath on the front and back door and a Christmas tree. Ever since I was a boy, I've thought that Christmas is a celebration of the Christmas tree. I recall as a child that the most special moment was the day or night when the tree was finished. I would lie on the sofa and look at all the sparkling ornaments. I'm a big fan of tree-trimming parties.

A tree is a short-lived thing. I'm a true believer that the tree should come down before New Year's Day: It's a fresh way to start the year.

I'm not a big fan of poinsettias. I prefer white orchids. During the holidays, you can tie it with sprigs of evergreen or some red berries. It's clean, it's simple, and at the end of the holidays you still have something.



Entertain With Ease

My neighbors, Greg and Sherri Johnson, live down the street. He is the chef at Chez Foushee, the popular restaurant at Foushee and West Grace streets. I asked him about what to keep on hand during the holidays for casual entertaining. He suggested the following, practical ideas:

Always have cheeses in the fridge, something sharp like a Stilton and something light like a brie, as well as a good selection of crackers. It's also a good idea to keep sliced turkey or ham on hand —they keep well. For all these things I recommend using local delis and grocers — give them the business at the holidays — or year-round, for that matter.

Keep your favorite cookie dough in the refrigerator. That way, you can roll it out, bake the cookies, and they will be fresh. That's much better than putting them in a tin.

Most importantly — and I mean most importantly — is always to have champagne on hand. Keep it chilled. It's your skinny black dress in the refrigerator. It's great if people stop by. It's a perfect house or hostess gift. And of course, it's always a delicious nightcap.

But most of all relax. Give yourself time. Even if you don't get your entertaining perfect, your guests will never know.



Host the Perfect Party

I contacted L. Raymond Ashworth, a bon vivant and civic leader who is known for his stylish parties. How does he do it?

Selecting the date is important. I informally ask friends and try not to have a party on a date where it looks like a lot is going on. During the holidays, Fridays and Saturdays can be full, so perhaps I'll have a party on another night. My parties aren't too late, maybe 5 to 7 p.m. — or even 4 to 6 o'clock if it's on a Sunday evening.

When extending invitations, I refer to a list I keep of personal invitations that I've received over the previous months to make sure I reciprocate. If I want 50 people, knowing that not everyone can come, I'll invite 60 or 70 people. And although I don't have any quotas, I mix men and women and older and younger people.

At the party, greeting people is important. No matter how much help you might or might not have, it's important to be at the front door to greet everyone. Butlers and catering staff don't suffice: The host must greet and say goodbye to everyone.

At various points, I look around to see if there are any wallflowers, if there's someone who's not mixing. Make sure the party is flowing.

My children always laugh that after the party is over, I examine my invitation list and check off who did, and did not, attend.



Survive the Social Whirl

Chances are, many of us will be attending more events then hosting them this year. William Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center, is probably required to show up at more parties — business and pleasure — than most. How can we better navigate a full calendar in a condensed time frame?

I try never to say no to an invitation. They didn't have to have a party, and they didn't have to invite me. Therefore, I think it's important to be as interesting and as attractive as possible.

So often we have "drive-by" conversations at parties, and you leave and it wasn't that satisfying an occasion. Part of your obligation as a guest is to be interesting. Read The New York Times before going to have a well-informed conversation that isn't just about how such-and-such is spending the holidays. Limit your real conversations to just one or two.

Before going, have a snack. Food should be secondary if you're there to have a good time. It's more about attitude. Every invitation is a gift. Anticipating a party is like anticipating the opening of a present. There are ideas you'll pick up at a party, new people you might meet, folks who've recently moved to Richmond and have an interesting perspective.

And finally, don't linger too long at a party. Your host understands that it's the holidays and you may not be able to spend the entire evening. Know when the party's over. Don't be one of the hangers-on still there at 3 a.m.

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