When do you Christmas? Need a timeline!
December 17, 2020 7:51 AM   Subscribe

It happens every year. I celebrate Christmas in a pretty big way and always have lots of ambitions: cards, baking, gifts, decorating - but I am reluctant to start "too early." Then I end up 10 days before Christmas in a frantic jam trying to get it all done. I need a Christmas timeline! When do you do the things? What are your deadlines for getting things done? Specific queries below the fold.

I think my issue is that I have this idea about "too early" but clearly I'm not starting early enough . This year we have no gatherings and things are a little simpler so it's a good time to plan for less stressful future Christmases. So I'd like to know specifically about your target dates for doing these things:
1. Starting your planning (list making etc)
2. Making or buying gifts (including beating shipping deadlines and out-of-stock issues)
3. Unpacking decorations
4. Actually decorating
5. Baking for food gifts (any tips on how you prevent things getting stale/yucky if made "too early?"
6. Writing cards
7. Actually sending cards
8. Wrapping gifts
9. House cleaning
10. What do you leave to do for pre-Christmas week itself?
11. What am I forgetting to plan in ahead of time?
posted by Miko to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
You need to add 'Getting in the Christmas spirit' to your list. Following from that then:
When will you start listening to Christmas songs (my advice, anything before the 23rd should be by 100% acquiescence of the listeners),
Watching Christmas films? (maybe 2 weeks, also consider wider audience)
Mulling wine (My SO speaks: before Dec 1st is passé)
When can you break your mince pie fast (also Dec 1st)
When are you buying the Xmas specific treats? (Start picking off the obvious from Nov, keep them separate from other food)

Who do you want to see before or during Xmas? Will they be away from home or inviting to your home? When do you need to invite them?

Will you be making your own Xmas cake? (Too late! Start in October next year...)
posted by biffa at 8:14 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I keep my eyes open for gifts ALL YEAR and store them in a hidden corner of my closet. In November I take a look and see what gaps I need to fill in and go ahead and do that. Getting that out of the way means I can enjoy all of December stress-free.

I wait to wrap them until the day before we celebrate, because if I impulse-bought anything else I'd want to incorporate that thoughtfully (for example, to wrap related things together so the kids have the am number of things to unwrap). If you are just getting one gift per person though, might as well wrap them as soon as you have them all.

I decorate December 1st, and since I store the cards I bought in the previous year's post-Christmas sale in the decoration boxes, I get those out too. They sit on my dining room table until I write them; I usually put them in the mail around the 14th.

When I made food gifts I usually did it the day before they'd be given so they'd be fresh. (If that didn't fit in my schedule, I wouldn't plan food gifts.)
posted by metasarah at 8:16 AM on December 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have this problem too and am trying to work on it, especially because Christmas Cards has become a thing for me, and I want to start doing baking as well.

1. Planning is an ongoing thing, but I start thinking about this shit in earnest around early November. I order my cards and make sure I have everyone's address. You don't want to be scrambling for addresses Dec 10th.

2. I keep running gift lists for my loved ones throughout the year so if I can start buying/ordering as part of my regular routine, now is the time. November for this stuff. On Dec 14 I was 100% done my shopping/gift prep.

3&4. Unpacking and decorating is the first weekend of December. This year we did Nov 28/29. I am Canadian and no Thanksgiving issues here. This is also when we are allowed to play Christmas music and watch Christmas movies.

5. I have not made food gifts much. One year we did preserves and those are super easy to make in November. I think with food gifts you either need a ton of time the week before you deliver them, or stick to something very non-perishable for your peace of mind.

6. Writing cards starts in mid-November. I try to buy my Christmas cards early November so they arrive in time to start, because I'm very slow going.

7. My goal is to get cards in the post by December 1. If I can't, I front-load international cards and get to my local friends last.

8. Wrapping is done as I go. When something arrives/is ready, it gets wrapped, labelled and put under the tree. Its fun seeing the pile grow and I never feel like I'm overwhelmed with wrapping.

9. I keep a really clean house, so its never in need of a lot. I usually go to my folks for the holidays. We clean really thoroughly about 4-5 days before hosting, with a tidy being done on the critical parts as necessary and right before people arrive.

10. All shopping for the meal is done as early as possible. We make a huge list and break everything down. Booze and non-perishables should be purchased at least a week ahead of Christmas. On the 23rd we do a big shop for perishables and anything we forgot. Usually that week is full of visits to friends for coffee/drinks/food/gifts, but this year I guess... walks in the snow and movie nights?

11. Plan your cooking. Plan all the meals you're going to eat from Dec 24 (or when guests arrive, if earlier) and Dec 25 dinner. Even if your meal is cold cuts and everyone makes a sandwich, have that written down. It just makes your life easier! Nothing is worse than doing your holiday grocery shopping only to discover that you don't have anything for lunch on Dec 24.
posted by dazedandconfused at 8:17 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I do very minor Christmas and Chanukah celebrations - I usually only get gifts for my partner, parents, brother, and occasionally grandparents and friends' kids. I don't make a big meal, I don't put up a tree, I don't have people over, etc. So, with that in mind, this is my Winter Holiday Timeline:

1. Gifts. I am pretty much always thinking of gifts for people. If there's something REALLY GOOD that I suspect will be time sensitive, I buy it when I see it. So, for example, this year my local store was selling signed copies of a particular book I wanted to get for my partner back in September - so I got it then. I started cross stitch presents I was planning to give to a few people in October. By November, I have a list of the people who need gifts and what I've gotten/plan to get, and its status. This may be an excel spreadsheet, because I am that person. Regardless, all my gift purchasing is done by December 1, and then I wrap and try to ship by December 10 or so. Part of this is that some of my presents are for Chanukah and not Christmas, so there's usually an earlier deadline, but that's a good target to mail out anyways, especially given how unreliable the post office can be and weather. For people I see in person, I just wrap them right before I see them.

2. Baking for gifts. I make a huge batch of gingersnaps, usually a few days before Christmas, and distribute to neighbors and places where I am a regular. If there's other baking, like for a party, I usually do it the day before or morning of.

3. Cards. I usually try to write most of my cards the week after Thanksgiving and tried to get them in the mail by the following weekend, prioritizing Chanukah cards.

4. Decorations. The only thing that I consistently do is light the menorah, and Chanukah stuff is always a bit of a gamble, so as soon as I see candles on sale somewhere, I buy them. This year, that meant I bought them before Thanksgiving.

5. Holiday movies. My family has a very strict holiday movie schedule that CANNOT be deviated from. Nightmare Before Christmas may only be watched the week of Halloween. Miracle on 34th Street must be watched the week of Thanksgiving (good for writing cards to, incidentally). Muppet Christmas Carol is for Christmas Eve. You may intersperse that with Nutcrackers, White Christmas (fast-forwarding through the minstrel show song), A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the cartoon Grinch as you like.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:18 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

A few personal choices and thoughts:

Making/buying gifts: if your gifts aren't too huge or time sensitive you can do this all year! I buy for a similar set of people every year, so if I see a good present for my husband or mom or sister I will totally buy it in August and hoard it for Christmas (it is an excellent way to feel smug and accomplished too). I try to wrap it up, literally and metaphorically, about two weeks ahead for anything that needs shipping, and by the weekend before Xmas for locals.

Actually decorating: this is a question of how long you personally like to look at decorations ;) My husband says "no earlier than Thanksgiving weekend" and I like to look at them as long as possible, so that's usually when we do it. Also my limit for "how early should I buy eggnog?" ;)
Unpack decorations: immediately before decorating.

Cards: I like to send these in early December because some people like to decorate with them :)

Food gifts: as close as possible to gifting time. So week of Xmas for locals, mid-Dec for shipping but baked the day before shipping ideally.
posted by february at 8:20 AM on December 17, 2020

I am a Christmasy person. That said, I often celebrate solo, even in non pandemic times. I love and cherish the lead-up more than the day itself. It's enjoyable for me because I make a point of ensuring it's not stressful and I'm not trapped in a retail hellscape.

1. Start planning - This happens year round. Seriously. I have a note in my phone and keep a running list. Often times I buy deeply discounted cards or a decor item or two for next year during Boxing Week sales. I have a box in my apartment that I stash little bits and bobs (separate from my tree/two boxes of ornaments in the basement storage locker).

2. Making or buying gifts - Once upon a time when I did stockings for my family, this happened year round. The goodies were stored in the box (then shoeboxes for each recipient). It helped with budgeting and preventing a cash crunch. if I saw something cute in my travels I could pick it up and it always had a home in the designated shoebox. I no longer have to do stockings and consolidate my gift purchasing in September/October. I tend to buy experiential gifts or gifts they wouldn't buy for themselves.

3. Unpacking decorations - End of November

4. Actually decorating - End of November/early December (it happened a bit earlier this year because I just wanted to sit in front of my tree and be cozy).

5. Baking for food gifts - December. I freeze things. Or, I make things like simmer pot recipes with dried orange and cinnamon sticks that can be made well in advance.

6. Writing cards - October, after Canadian Thanksgiving. I am just one person so don't have a newsletter or family photos to include. My sentiments are heartfelt but consistent - I know I'm going to wish them a Happy Christmas, lots of love and good health in the new year. That won't change between October & December. I buy Christmas stamps as soon as I see them at the post office. First order of business is my least favourite part - addressing them. It's also not very Christmasy so feels suitable for October.

7. Actually sending cards - December. I bundle them up with an elastic band and set a calendar reminder on my phone.

8. Wrapping gifts - November, as most of my gifts have to be mailed. If in person I would do this in December in front of the Christmas tree with a Christmas movie on.

9. House cleaning - If I had the resources I'd hire a one-time cleaning if this is stressing you out.

10. What do you leave to do for pre-Christmas week itself? Nothing - I relax and enjoy seeing the presents under the tree, enjoy some baking, bask in the season. I MIGHT do some fresh baking if the mood strikes me. Otherwise I'm watching Christmas movies and enjoying myself. Walking through my neighbourhood to see the lights. I am diligent throughout the year so I can ENJOY Christmas - and I do.

I leave my tree up until the new year. It typically comes down Jan 2 or 3 or the weekend following New Year's Eve.

Merry Christmas!
posted by nathaole at 8:20 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

1. Around Halloween, our extended families begin initial, limited discussions of who will be coming for Thanksgiving, and usually begin the conversations around dates for Christmas gatherings (we usually host three events, but the timing depends on who will be available on which dates. These decisions are typically finalized at the Thanksgiving gathering. Menu planning and other lists begin in earnest shortly after Thanksgiving.
2. One-off gifts may be purchased at any time of year, but the core shopping begins the day after Thanksgiving.
3. We do not always have time to decorate much (although we have a ton of decorations), but when we do, it usually begins with outdoor lights the weekend following Thanksgiving).
4. Same as 3.
5. We do not bake for food gifts as a general rule, although this year there was some baking done just prior to Thanksgiving and then delivered the day prior.
6. We do not send cards anymore.
7. See 6.
8. Usually a couple of weeks before Christmas, although gifts being mailed will be a week or so earlier.
9. The entire week before Thanksgiving. The entire week after. Then a couple weeks ahead of Christmas and multiple times throughout that week, depending on which dates people are coming over.
10. Some grocery shopping, some cooking. Then lots of cooking. We also try to leave the panicking until the week before. No use panicking too early in the season. There's plenty of time for panicking the week of.
11. Make sure you have plenty of drinks on hand. And I don't mean for the guests.
12. Happy Holidays!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:27 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

1. I make a tentative list on Jan 1 each year of who I'm planning to buy for that year. Then I keep my eyes open all year and buy as things pop up.
2. See above.
3. Decorations start going up December 1. Sometimes we have the tree by then, sometimes not.
4. See above.
5. N/A, I don't make baked gifts, but I do make sugarplums. I usually do those right around now.
6. Day after Thanksgiving is the family picture day. I'll take a couple days to process and choose the photo/s, then order from Minted or Shutterfly or wherever. When they arrive, I address and stamp them and send them out.
7. See above. This year things are slow and my cards just shipped from Minted yesterday. I do not stress if the cards go out late. They'll get there eventually.
8. Usually start around now.
9. On-going.
10. Last-minute shopping for gifts and food. TBH, the gift part doesn't happen often because I'm fortunate to have room to store gifts throughout the year. I'll plan the menu around Dec 1 and depending on what I'm cooking, I'll have a couple grocery runs in the week leading up to Christmas day. This year I have the roast in the freezer already and have planned a grocery pickup for next week. If we don't get what we need, we'll make do.
11. Menu planning?
posted by cooker girl at 8:42 AM on December 17, 2020

If you go to Pinterest and do a search for "Christmas planner schedule" or some similar phraseology, you will find a metric assload of calendars and schedules for everything from decorating to gift shopping to meal planning and food shopping and the like. If you add the word "printable" to that search string your search will be narrowed down to free downloadable versions of that schedule you can print out and take with you (and it will still yield a metric assload). Many of them will include items that you may not do (not everyone makes their own plum pudding or plants paperwhite bulbs to give as gifts or what have you), and you can simply cut them out or find another list that doesn't include them or the like.

For example, here's a link to one that Martha Stewart made in 2004. It's part of a larger full all-on document with recipes and craft tips, so here's just the schedule:
- gift shopping/making.
- make plum pudding or fruitcake if that's how you roll.
- start making cookies.
- plant paperwhites or decoration and as gifts.
- review holiday card address list, update, and print out labels.
- begin writing holiday newsletter if you do one.
- purchase craft supplies for gift wrap, gift tags, and ornaments.
- mail out any overseas cards or gifts.

- plan menus for entertaining.
- if you do something on New Year's Eve, mail the invitations now.
- make or buy holiday cards.
- make stockings.
- make ornaments.
- make wreaths and garlands.
- make gingerbread house.
- hang wreaths.
- decorate house for holiday entertaining (not yet on the tree).
- buy or make candles for the holiday table.
- make pomanders for decoration or as gifts.

- mail domestic cards and gifts.
- buy poinsettas.
- unpack lights and christmas tree ornaments; make sure lights work.
- get tree and put it up, and decorate.
- keep baking cookies if you've still got some to go.
- make gift tags and bows and start wrapping gifts.
- choose holiday table linens and place settings.
- if you get carolers, have hot chocolate and cookies ready to offer them.
- polish silverware and serving pieces.

- finalize your shopping list for Christmas dinner and buy non-perishables early; wait until Christmas Eve day for salad greens, fresh bread, or seafood.
- pick out your Christmas music CDs and have them ready.
- get the wine for Christmas dinner.
- round up last-minute gifts (make or buy).
- finish wrapping gifts.
- make holiday flower arrangements for the dinner table.
- iron table linens.
- order the ham, roast, goose, or turkey from the butcher for dinner in time.

- during the day - get the salad greens/seafood/bread you need for Christmas dinner.
- do the Santa stuff if you've got kids at home.

- live it up! She suggests making a list of what you get and from whom so you can write the thank you notes easier.
I mean, there's a whole assload of stuff on there that you're probably not going to do, but that is as detailed as some of the things get that you can find on Pinterest. And personally, my own schedule for the tree is dictated by "when I can be arsed to go get something from the tree vendor up the block", so sometimes it's the second week of December in my case.

In general, I think people would only look at you funny if you started putting up Christmas decorations right after Halloween or something; but no one says you can't start making notes about the cookies you want to make or shopping for gifts or things like that then. A lot of craft stores and card stores put their Christmas stuff out then, so you could get the gift wrap and cards in early November and just have that ready to roll. Hell, I made this year's Christmas gift wrap in March (it was a quarantine activity).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:01 AM on December 17, 2020

5) Baking

I start:

- Christmas Pudding around mid-late November. Feed it once a week. Eat on Christmas Day - start heating a few hours before dinner

- Christmas Cake at least a week before Christmas. Feed it every day.

- Stollen one week before I intend to eat it, I made this years this Monday just passed

- Lebkuchen, I made these with Royal Icing this year which meant the icing got better over time but the biscuits got softer, I will try this on gingerbread instead

- This is the first year I’m not doing trifle for Christmas, usually assemble Christmas Eve or Christmas morning

- also I usually do a pavlova, best made on the day and left for an hour in fridge but you can get away with the day before

- this year I’m making fougasse, probably this weekend

- since things are a bit glum this year I intend to celebrate epiphany on the 6th, with Epiphany bread I will make on the day
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 10:41 AM on December 17, 2020

We switched from "holiday" cards to New Years' cards -- as you probably know. ;-)

Cards for us were the only thing that were timely because we are a small family of non-religious people. So rather than stress about getting our cards out the door in time for a specific day in December, we decided to change the deadline and the card.
posted by terrapin at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2020

I have "start fruitcake" as an annual reminder on my phone for November 22nd. I usually start earlier, but have that as my nudge.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2020

Save your lists. Most of the tasks are basically the same every year, so you can tweak last year's todo. My notes are in Keep, before that in evernote, easy to review
Last year, I spent the time to make a huge youtube playlist. Christmas activities are enhanced by music. My Mom made our house beautiful; there were parties and great meals, gifts, etc. And she got so stressed that there was always at least 1 blowup. Making chex mix is fun, baking is fun, I kind of like wrapping gifts, even, make sure the fun is built in.
posted by theora55 at 1:26 PM on December 17, 2020

You might want to check out this!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 1:58 PM on December 17, 2020

I can't answer your questions, but you might like this book: The All-Year-Round Christmas Handbook: Plan, make, cook, and create your own unique celebration. I bought it for my sister, who says she has found it useful for Christmas planning. (I will say, you have to be a Christmassy person not to find it annoying. Which you may think goes without saying, but I bought it because of a review saying it was good for planning even if you don't much care for Christmas - I found this not to be the case.)
posted by paduasoy at 2:39 PM on December 17, 2020

Response by poster: I totally appreciate all the professional calendars and printable lists and stuff, and I consume that content like nobody's business, but I always feel like those express a theoretical ideal and I'm interested in how real people really do this. So thanks for both kinds of details!
posted by Miko at 3:02 PM on December 17, 2020

1. Starting your planning: I don't make a actual list, but I've been doing this for a few years, so:

2. Making or buying gifts: The week before Thanksgiving we sit down and figure out who is getting what, and then wait for the cyber Monday sales. Worth mentioning that this is for buying. For making see #6.

3. Unpacking decorations: The Saturday after Thanksgiving. This is also tied to tree-getting.

4. Actually decorating: Also the Saturday & Sunday following Thanksgiving.

5. Baking for food gifts (any tips on how you prevent things getting stale/yucky if made "too early?": We do an annual Burning of the Christmas Cookies but never give any out, because, well, they are usually burned.

6. Writing cards: This is where my biggest planning comes in. For the last 10 years I've created an art item. This ranges from a tiny marionette and puppet stage to writing & publishing books to seance kits, etc. I have to have my idea by August, and I like to have it finalized and created by the first week in November. I mail out to about 70 people, so I want to make sure everything is packaged & in the post the first week of December.

7. Actually sending cards: See above.

8. Wrapping gifts: As they arrive. I can't handle letting things pile up.

9. House cleaning: We just keep things either really clean or a huge mess and adjust.

10. What do you leave to do for pre-Christmas week itself? Special meals, special events

11. What am I forgetting to plan in ahead of time? Activities! Going to look at lights. Attending parties. Theater. Advent calendar buying.
posted by haplesschild at 3:56 PM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I always feel like (the printables) express a theoretical ideal and I'm interested in how real people really do this.

ahhhh, gotcha. Okay, so here's the ballpark calendar for a person who (in normal years) a) entertains very rarely for Christmas, b) travels to another state to spend the actual holiday, and c) is single with no kids.

* My one big holiday gathering with friends tends to be in the earlier part of December, in the hopes of finding a date more people can attend. I do a low-key open house thing, which begins with a tree trimming in the afternoon and then is a pilgrimage to the house lights in Dyker Heights in the evening. I try to do this in the earlier part of December so as to catch more people who might have later parties or leave town if I were to do this later; usually the first or second weekend of December. Another thing I set out early are books - I have a collection of Christmas-themed books that I set out as part of my decorating, like one of my aunts always did. I always have the romantic notion that I will end up thus spending some cozy evenings sipping cocoa and reading a book while listening to Christmas music, and sometimes I even do that.

* the party is what usually what dictates the cookie baking - with people coming, I need to have cookies in the house to serve them. I try to get most of the cookies done before the party, whatever date it is.

* I don't decorate all that big - I never did like the "it looks like Santa threw up in here" aesthetic. I prefer a more rustic feel, like I'm living in a cabin in the middle of the Adirondacks or something. I also use the same decorations and ornaments year after year because what the hell, they still work. Usually I have a couple of garlands in the window, a couple candle displays in windowsills, and a plaid table runner; sometimes I'll put that out Thanksgiving weekend, sometimes the week after. The tree goes up a week or so later, in time for the party.

* For some of the gift shopping, I just rely on the fact that Amazon has gift wrapping and can send things direct to some places. For other things, either i will have Amazon send the unwrapped stuff to my parents (where I will wrap things on Christmas eve when I get there) or I will pick stuff up myself, wrapping it as soon as I bring it home. I often do just a couple books or something simple so this is a fairly simple endeavor.

* If I am mailing something myself, I try to get it into the mail by the third week of December so it will get there for Christmas. For my friend in Ireland I try to get it out the week before that.

* I'm terrible at cards; I've started writing them today and will be finished tomorrow, although this time it's because I'd ordered some special from a printer and the mail just took its time delivering them.

* I don't host a big Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner; either I am visiting family and they do it, or I am at home by myself (I alternate Christmas just being at home alone and chillin'). If I'm going to be home, it's usually the week before Christmas that I'm planning whatever elaborate thing I'm going to make and then shopping for it; since it's just me, I can get away with a later shopping run because I have less to get and I've usually picked something weird that few other people will be trying to make.

Sometimes I have ambitions to do things like make gift embellishments or make gifts, but I rarely do. I still have the means to do that someday.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2020

Former Canadian TV writer and host Karen Bertelsen tackles this issue every year on her entertaining blog, The Art of Doing Stuff. This year she streamlined her annual Christmas Pledge timeline further because, y'know, coronavirus.

I'm not a Christmas person, and even less of a decorating or cooking person, but her blog regularly includes interesting and informative content to keep me coming back. Here's how she describes the pledge:

"...every year I publish a post on how to get everything you need to get done for Christmas by November 30. That in turn gives you the ENTIRE month of December to relax. That means presents bought, decorations up, Christmas cards addressed and sent. It’s called the Christmas Pledge and this is its 9th year. Thousands of people have taken the Christmas pledge over the years and if you’re one of those people who always feels like you’re flailing and overwhelmed by the middle of December, this pledge is for you."

The post includes a schedule and tips, and it's not some weird scammy "sign up to get the details" kind of thing. The comments from her readers are sometimes interesting, too.
posted by Jaqi at 9:44 PM on December 17, 2020

If you're in the US and shipping anything, the deadline for regular postage is around December 12th to guarantee a Dec 24th or earlier arrival. So everything has to be ready and in the box by then. I figure I want to be done with any craft items by October, and planning what to bake by the weekend before this deadline.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:23 AM on December 18, 2020

In a normal year, I start planning in September including booking any shows or concerts, peruse Christmas decorations, gift wrap and cards in October and shop for gifts in November. I like to have all the gifts bought before December, so that I just have to wrap at the end. I don't do much in the way of baking and food in advance, mainly because baking is a Christmas pleasure for me so I like to do that as part of the celebrations themselves, and I also don't have a lot of room for make-ahead food storage. We almost always have Christmas at home, and it's either just the two of us for the big day or it's us plus one other couple.
posted by plonkee at 8:27 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

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