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The Diablo Guide to Carefree Holidays

It's all about making the season joyful and low-stress.


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If you find that the mere mention of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has you gritting your teeth, you’re not alone. Yeah, it’s too late to book a flight to Maui. But don’t worry. We’ve got a jillion and a half tips for making your holidays carefree.

In the following pages, you’ll discover strategies for focusing your holidays on what’s important to you. We’ve consulted with local experts—everyone from shrinks to chefs to yoga teachers who make house calls—to help you stay out of holiday hell. Who knows? With our suggestions and shortcuts, you might even have some time to relax, reflect on why we celebrate the winter holidays—and have some fun.

Avoid the Hallmark Hype
The holidays can become a slog when you try to do too much and you want everything to be Hallmark Card perfect. So put aside your to-do list, take a deep breath, and visualize what you want for yourself and your family this holiday season. The best way to enjoy a meaningful holiday is to know exactly what is important to you.

Walnut Creek therapist Stephen Sperber recommends calling a family meeting and asking: “What kind of holiday do we as a family want to have? What kind of experience do we really want to share with one another?”

Then focus on making time for what is meaningful to all of you, and not on what you think you should do. For instance, why not schedule time to take care of yourselves? Mark your calendar for the day you’ll get massages or go for a hike as a family or with friends.

As you’re planning, don’t overbook, even if you find yourself feeling obligated to accept invitations. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’d love to come but I can’t,’ ” says Kathy Waddill, an organizing consultant from Orinda. “You don’t have to say why—it could be that you’ve scheduled a bath.”

M. J. Ryan, Walnut Creek writer and cocreator of the Random Acts of Kindness series, suggests putting off some things until after the holidays. “You can say, ‘I can’t do it now, I’m overwhelmed; but let’s plan something for January 27,’ ” she says. “Who says everything has to be packed into six weeks?”

Look at family traditions, too, and see if they’re making you crazy. “The truth is, I hate to make cookies, but I’m convinced it’s an important family tradition,” Ryan says. “It would be good to ask my daughter ‘Do you want to have cookies this year?’ If it doesn’t matter to her, I’m definitely ditching it. Maybe what she wants to do is go up to Tahoe and slide in the snow.”

Let go of the everyday things that can stress you out this time of year. Make a “to-don’t” list, suggests Joan Bechtel of Alamo, coauthor of Motherhood Confidential: The Strange Disappearance of My Best Friend. Don’t clean your fridge; don’t wash the car; let your child do his homework alone once a week. Every time you don’t do one of these small things, you’ve stolen back valuable minutes for yourself. Bechtel also recommends the “what if” method for gaining a new perspective. Step back, look at the demands on your time, and ask “What if?” “What if you made potatoes from a box this time?” Bechtel asks. “Would the whole family go supernova?”

GRACEFUL GIFT GIVING

Shop strategically

Have someone—your spouse, a friend, your teenager—drop you off at the shops and then come back in a couple hours to pick up the packages you’ve accumulated and take you to your next destination. This keeps you from having to find parking and haul around heavy bags.

Set up tea, lunch, or drinks with friends during shopping time. Toast the season and have an excuse to pause amid the retail chaos.

Or don’t shop at all

Give a wine class, ski or tennis lessons, a massage, a facial, or a hot air balloon ride as a gift. Or reserve tickets to A Christmas Carol at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts or the Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Instead of giving kids more toys, make a donation in their names. They can sponsor a child overseas or support the preservation of a favorite wild animal.Explain that helping people or animals in need is their present. Visit www.oaklandzoo.org or www.altgifts.org to help with conservation and relief efforts.

Give your bookish pal lunch with a local author. Towne Center Books in Pleasanton hosts author luncheons once a month. Visit www.townecenterbooks.com for more information.

Make a memory jar. Your parents, for instance, really don’t need any more vases, ties, or electric gadgets. Ask your siblings to write down their favorite family memories on small pieces of paper, and put them in a beautiful jar. These random memories will delight all year long.

Make a CD mix of your favorite music. Better yet, make it a double! Fill one CD with music, the other with pictures from throughout the year.

IT'S A WRAP

Share the joy

You’ve already done all the shopping—let your partner do the wrapping and shipping.

Wrap ergonomically

Work at a table, not on the bed or floor. Sit where you’re comfortable.

Have elves of your own?

“If you have kids, let them wrap,” says organizing consultant Waddill. “They like to see what everybody else is getting.” Or pay your babysitter to wrap gifts.

Assign each person a color

Red for mom, silver for dad, green for Joey, etc. Keeping track will be easier.

DECKING THE HALLS
We all love the bright lights, ribbons, and baubles of the holiday season. Here are ways to keep decorating festive and carefree.

Hire it out

Get an interior decorator who also does redecorating to deck your halls. She’ll work with whatever decorations you already have.

Think big

“The larger ornaments—the balls and stars—have a lot of impact,” says Kim Smart, an interior decorator based in Lafayette. “You only need 12; just mix them in with the smaller ones.”

Put away the ladder

Wrap lights around the porch banister instead of clambering onto the roof.

Get a new tree stand

Pick up one of the nifty ones that adjusts the angle of your tree when you press a button with your foot.

THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
Whether you gather your friends for dinner or to sip hot cocoa by the fire, there’s no better way to spread holiday cheer. Here are some tips on throwing a party that you can enjoy, too, from East Bay caterer-to-the-stars Paula LeDuc.

One-stop shopping

If you’re putting together a last-minute party, take advantage of resources like the San Francisco Ferry Building or Market Hall in Oakland’s Rockridge district. You can buy everything from ingredients to prepared food, plus flowers, plates or platters, or a pitcher for that special drink. Shop for it all in one place, then go home and set it out.

Focus on one dish

One appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert can be your showstopper. It might be an over-the-top crudité platter from Whole Foods or Andronico’s, the elegant and delicate poached salmon with dill sauce that you can order from Spenger’s, or coq au vin in a silver chafing dish that you have delivered to your house by a caterer. Whether you make the main attraction yourself or buy it, the important thing is that it be beautiful to behold and delicious! Make everything else simple.

Hire a helper

Put someone else in charge of drinks, for instance. Get someone who can help with all those little things that take you away from your guests.

Make your party self-serve

Set up stations throughout the house that pair a wine or champagne with a cheese or other food. Guests taste their way from living room to den, in search of the next item you might have waiting. Or put a pot of soup—something that smells enticing—on your stove, with mugs or small bowls, soup spoons, and garnishes at the ready so that people can help themselves. For Paula LeDuc’s Truffled Potato and Leek Soup, see recipe at top.

Diablo’s food editor, Kathryn Jessup, is a big advocate of holiday punch. You can stir up a vat of this whiskey sour punch in minutes from ingredients that are readily available at every supermarket.

Buy a large bottle of whiskey, a can of frozen lemonade concentrate, a dozen limes, three oranges, a bunch of fresh mint if you can find it, granulated sugar, a two-liter bottle of club soda, a jar of maraschino cherries, and a bag of ice. Squeeze the limes until you have one cup of juice, then combine that with two cups of the whiskey, the lemonade concentrate, two tablespoons of sugar, and half the bottle of club soda. Stir gently. Garnish the punch with sliced oranges and limes, sprigs of fresh mint, and maraschino cherries. Put several cups of ice in the punch but leave the rest in an ice bucket on the side. Put out a large ladle and cups. Your work is done.

Keep the following items on hand

These are the makings of an instant party, just in case your doorbell rings unexpectedly.

>Vodka in the freezer.

> Great wines and champagne that you don’t drink on a daily basis.

> A case of Prosecco Italian sparkling wine. It’s light, delicious, and unusual, and its flavor matches beautifully with most foods.
> Vin Santo. This great dessert wine is perfect for dipping biscotti.
> Cured meats, salumi, good-quality parmesan, olives mixed with garlic and spices.
> Artisanal bread, sliced and frozen so it can be popped in the oven when guests arrive.
> Mixed CD or an iPod party playlist.
> Pretty, nice-smelling soaps.
> Logs for the fireplace.
> Candles, candles, candles—but only unscented.

TAKE A HIKE

Promise us you’ll step outside if you’re feeling the holiday heat. It seems obvious, but for some reason we forget that a walk in the fresh air, surrounded by the gentle colors of the East Bay’s winter landscape, can be soothing and relaxing.

You don’t have to go anywhere in particular—anything that involves putting one foot in front of the other will do the trick. Sometimes just a walk around the block is a revelation. It might be the first time you get an unhurried look at your neighbors’ holiday decorations. For the truly maxed-out among us, it may be the first time you get an unhurried look at your neighbors!

Another breath of fresh air on a holiday might involve getting your guests the heck out of your house. Ask a close family member to invite them on a walk, so you can finish your preparation or just have a half hour to yourself. If you want to amplify the experience of taking a break by getting out into nature, consider one of the following walks. They’re close by, and checking them out requires no preparation.

Mt. Diablo

An easy hike off of Mitchell Canyon Road in Clayton will take you through a lush swath of alders, big leaf maples, and all kinds of oaks. Views are great, and, with luck, the stream that the trail follows will be flowing.

Mitchell Canyon fire road starts at the south end of Mitchell Canyon Road, Clayton, $3 parking fee, (925) 837-6119, www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=517.

Briones

Inspiring views await at the top of Briones Road in Martinez, and you don’t have to climb to enjoy them. The hike from where you park your car to the ridgeline is short, and surprisingly flat.

Old Briones Road Trail starts at the top of Briones Road, which is just off Alhambra Valley Road, near its intersection with Reliez Valley Road, $5 parking fee, (510) 636-1684. For a great, easy map, go to www.ebparks.org.

Sycamore Grove Park

Walk beneath one of the largest stands of sycamore trees in California and just say, “om.” You’ll find ruins of one of the Livermore Valley’s oldest wineries in this 742-acre park.


Sycamore Grove Park, 1051 Wetmore Rd. (between Vallecitos and Arroyo roads), Livermore, $3 parking fee, (925) 960-2400, www.larpd.dst.ca.us.

HOLIDAY FUN

These ideas are easy, low-tech, close to home, and some are even in our favorite price range: free!

Tour the lights

Go to www.lightsofthevalley.com to see the flashiest Tri-Valley houses.

Share a book

Danville library assistant Kathleen Baritell gave us a list of holiday favorites the whole family can enjoy.
The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story, by Cynthia Rylant (kindergarten–third grade)
Mouse’s First Christmas, by Lauren Thompson (preschool–second grade)
Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat: A Chanukah Story, by Naomi Howland (first–fourth grade)

Watch a movie

MaryAnn Black, owner of CinemArt in Walnut Creek, told us that patrons scoop up these classics each December.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Miracle on 34th Street
Elf
The Nutcracker
A Christmas Carol
Home for the Holidays

Ride a holiday train

The Niles Canyon Railway in Sunol runs special evening trains that are decorated with holiday lights throughout the holiday season. www.ncry.org

Go ice skating

Experience a winter wonderland, even in the temperate Bay Area.

Civic Park Ice Skating Rink, 1375 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek, www.iceskatewalnutcreek.com.
Dublin Iceland, 7212 San Ramon Rd., Dublin, (925) 829-4445, www.dubliniceland.com.
Oakland Ice Center, 519 18th St., Oakland, (510) 268-9000, www.oaklandice.com.

Create connections
Go around your holiday dinner table and have everyone say one thing they’re thankful for. “It’s interesting to see what people say, and it brings people closer together,” says author M. J. Ryan. “Everyone can do it, no matter how old they are. When my daughter was two, she would take her little finger and point at every single person at the table.”

HOLIDAY ZEN

Unwind with a yoga party

Here are some instructors who offer customized yoga sessions in their studios or at your home.


Jeanne Dowell
(925) 254-0193

Julie Rubio
(925) 258-0300

Manuela Rohr
(925) 253-9373

Relax while you get a holiday mini-makeover

Go to an after-hours salon party, and reconnect with your friends while beautifying your nails. Gather a group of girlfriends, order take-out, and head to Pinkies in Lafayette. You can reserve the salon, the beauticians, and arrange to have the chilled Chardonnay ready to go. 3333 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-1229, www.pinkiesnailsalons.com

Host a spa party

Stay home and have the spa come to you. Come to Your Senses Events (www.cometoyoursensesevents.com) lets you invite friends over to share in relaxing beauty treatments.

OUT OF TOWN GUESTS?

Family flying in from out of town? Still have to put up the wreaths and finish cooking? Send a limo to collect your guests. They’ll arrive in style, and you’ll be relaxed when they do. Here are three limousine companies that run 24 hours a day, and do airport pickup and tour packages.

Fortune Limousine Service
(925) 934-4130

Elite Limousine
(925) 825-1800

First Class Transportation
(925) 743-0283

HOLIDAY RECIPES

A Sweet, East Gift
Meg Manlove, president of California Private Chefs in Walnut Creek, suggests making white chocolate Peppermint Bark as a simple, festive gift for neighbors and associates.

Peppermint Bark
1 pound El Rey white chocolate, or other high-quality white chocolate, chopped
3 ounces candy canes, pulverized in food processor
Melt chocolate by placing it in a bowl over a pot of hot water, stirring occasionally. (The pot should be off the heat.) Place waxed paper on a baking sheet, and pour half the melted chocolate onto the paper, spreading it in an even, rectangular layer. Sprinkle the pulverized candy over the chocolate, and let it chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Layer the remaining melted chocolate on top and return the sheet to the fridge for 30 minutes. Remove bark from sheet and allow to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Cut into 3-inch squares. Put squares in small gift bags. Wrap each bag with a big bow.

Paula LeDuc’s Truffled Potato and Leek Soup
1 pound Yukon Gold or Banana Fingerling potatoes
2 leeks
2 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 quarts chicken broth
1 teaspoon fennel seed
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons half-and-half
2 teaspoons white truffle oil (available at most fine grocery stores)
1 bunch chives, chopped

Peel and cut the potatoes into bite-size chunks. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and rinse well. Cut in half lengthwise again. Chop into very thin slices. On medium-low heat, slowly cook the leeks in the butter with the fennel seeds. Do not brown. Add the potatoes and coat with the leeks and butter. Cook for an additional 10 minutes. Add the chicken broth. If you do not have homemade, Swanson’s low sodium is a good substitute.

Allow to simmer until potatoes are tender. Add the half-and-half.

Portion into bowls, and finish each bowl with a few drops of white truffle oil and a sprinkle of chopped chives. (Or leave small bowls, soup spoons, truffle oil, and chopped chives by the soup in a crockpot so guests can help themselves.)

You may choose to puree this soup with a blender. It is best to puree liquids when they are room temperature or cold. It would also be best to puree the soup before adding the half-and-half. You may add a little more chicken stock to thin the soup if needed. Serves 6.

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