OK, I hate being one of those smarty-pants smug people who has the “simple” solution to holiday stress.  Really, I have no better handle on how to make the holidays run more smoothly than any of the rest of you, but people keep asking me anyway.  (Reference this post, which I wrote for Yahoo’s Shine network.)  Recently, I’ve noticed more than one of my contacts on Facebook and Twitter grousing about the numerous requests that seem to flow endlessly towards parents of little ones during the holiday season.  Apparently, having kids at this time of the year means that you must automatically have time to buy grab bag gifts for the whole class, whip up some (nut-free) (allergen-free) (healthy) (but not too healthy) (festive) (but non-denominational) goodies for the bake sale, finish 20 “easy” craft projects for some sort of swap somewhere, and participate in, oh, one or two hundred small charity events sponsored by every school, office, church, synagogue, and civic organization you’ve ever been associated with, including the neighborhood coffee shop where you buy the occasional latte once every three months.

It’s maddening.

I get it.  I really do.  And I have to confess that I’ve had to be one of the guilty parties this year — I’ve been sending out the occasional chirpy little email to people I know, saying things like “I know this time of year is SO busy, but…” and “It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, just whatever you can muster…” and so forth.  I grit my teeth every time I send one of these emails, because I know how much I hate to receive them.  But it takes a village to be festive, I guess, and in December, every village wants to be the MOST festive.

I really want to tell you all to just run and hide under the covers until it’s all over.  That’s what I want to do, some days.  Hang a sign on your front door that says “Gone Fishin’… FOREVER.”  Leave yourself a dozen messages on your voicemail, so anyone who tries to get in touch with you hears “Mailbox full.”  Accidentally disable your email account or “forget” your password for the next couple of weeks.  But of course, as responsible adults (?!?!?!) with children, we have to be accessible, and that means dealing — in some way — with the deluge of requests to pitch in and be merry, damn it.

I haven’t perfected my own methods of dealing with it all; not by a long shot.  But in the interest of helping, just a bit, I share the following parable:

Once there was a woman who loved to bake.  She baked for her loved ones all the time.  She enjoyed seeing people smile.  She liked to do whatever she could to make others happy, and since often, she didn’t have the financial resources to donate lavishly to good causes, or time to devote to volunteering, she’d offer up her gifts in the kitchen as a way to give back modestly to her community.
Of course, her modest gifts of homemade treats began to grow.  Requests began to expand.  What once was a dozen cookies became two dozen.  Then three.  Then one year, she baked sixteen dozen cookies — of several elaborate varieties — in a single weekend and gave them to a community organization, which shall remain nameless, for a fundraiser.  When she dropped the cookies off for the event, no one said “Thank You.”  No one even opened the packages or looked at the work she’d done.  They just said “Put ’em over there, ok?” and went about their business.
The baker went home feeling somewhat deflated.  It wasn’t that she wanted people to gush elaborately over her work; she just wanted it to be noticed.  She’d stayed up late, rearranged her work schedule, and missed out on playground time with her kids to make those cookies, and she wondered if anyone even cared.  She waited for a few days, then a week, then two weeks after the event; she kept seeing the people who had requested the cookies, and she expected, in the back of her mind, that they’d say thank you at some point.  But they never did.  No one said a word to her about the cookies she’d worked so hard to produce.  And at that very moment, the baker decided that she would never donate her cookies to that organization again.

Take what you will from this tale of woe, but here’s where it left me: Determined to never put myself out in such a manner again, for anyone.  Obviously that could mean saying “no” to every request that comes my way, but I’d feel like a Grinch if I went to that extreme.  However, it was a good lesson in setting boundaries, and the boundaries I have set for myself come in the form of the following rules:

1) Only contribute to three things, MAXIMUM, per holiday season. I don’t care if it’s Santa Claus himself; if he’s the fourth person in line who approaches me for homemade treats, my bakeshop is closed.  (The same rule of thumb can be applied to charity donations, coat drives, craft swaps, and other seasonal madness.)
2) Only contribute if it’s not going to disrupt your routine. It’s really hard for me to say no, especially when I tend to default to thinking “Oh…I can just stay up a little later Wednesday night and get it all done.”  But I have to remind myself that staying up later on Wednesday night to bake the extra cookies or cakes will mean that I won’t want to stay up later on Thursday night to wrap the kids’ presents or make out the Christmas cards.  Or sweep the Cheerios from underneath the rug.  Or shower.
3) Only contribute something that is truly not a bother to make. As much as I might like to dazzle everyone with my baking prowess, I have to hold firmly to my conviction that something simple and well-made is just as valuable in the end as something elaborate.

With these rules, I have managed to eliminate a lot of the guilt and angst that come with all the donation requests of the season.  However, there is one other hint that has helped tremendously: Give away your EXTRAS.  Yes, we’ve all got them, whether we think we do or not.  For me, it starts with giving away Swedish Christmas breads — my family’s old recipes make 6-8 loaves at a time, which means I’ve usually got over a dozen loaves of homemade bread kicking around by the middle of December.  From there, I move to culling assortments of cookies and brownies and the like from the array of treats I’ll be baking and freezing.  If we’re all a bit honest with ourselves, no family needs all four dozen of every variety of Christmas cookie.  Taking a dozen here, a dozen there, and packing them up for the church bazaar will not only relieve some stress, but probably be a gift to everyone’s waistlines.

And finally, I keep in reserve one or two good, truly simple recipes that make me feel like I’m practically cheating when I whip them up to give away.  I make sure they’re things I can do in big batches and freeze, so with just a half hour or so of light work in the kitchen, I’ve got a stash of goodies to pull from whenever somebody says “Oh by the way….” at the very last minute.  These Mistletoe Bars are the best example of just such a recipe.  Gooey, salty, chewy, sweet, and irresistible, they’re perfect for every gathering.  And if you’ve got a few extras come Christmas Eve, Santa probably wouldn’t mind if you passed a few his way.