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Three days before Christmas: Think big picture

Now is the time to get organized, polish off the dirty work and strategize for the relatives’ arrival. Make three lists and check them thrice: To whip your home into top seasonal shape, create a separate list for each of the following categories: Buy, Do and Make. Prioritize the Buy list first so you can get in and out of busy malls, grocery stores and wine shops, and not have to brave the crowds again until – fingers crossed – Boxing Day.

Your guide to stress-free holidays, whether you’re hosting, socializing or travelling

Gussy up the guest rooms. Hang a simple green wreath from a silk or velvet ribbon in the window, place a stack of fluffy towels on a chair and give the bed more plushness than usual. “Layering your bed makes it appear more luxurious,” says Stacy Begg, a stylist and co-founder of the Toronto-based holiday decor service, We Deck the Halls. “We love the look of a coverlet, faux-fur throw or Hudson Bay blanket folded at the end of the bed.” She has another genius bed-making technique for when company’s coming: “Iron only the pillowcases and top sheet,” Begg says. “It’ll give you ‘hotel chic’ without an extra hour of work.”

Put new long-lasting tapers, pillars and votives in all candle holders around the house. The first time you burn a pillar candle, let it burn one hour for every inch of the candle’s diameter to avoid “tunnelling” (when a hole appears in the center on the wick). Trim the wick of all candles by 1/8 of an inch every time you light them to avoid uneven burning and smoking, and keep a snuffer handy – blowing out candles will only spatter the wax. And if you haven’t yet filled your front-door urns with DIY masterpieces, it’s time to move to Plan B. Find whatever’s left at the garden centre or grocery store and buy two (bonus: they’ll probably be on sale). Augment the basic greens with pine cones, berries or ornaments for a custom look.

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Today is likely your last chance to remove clutter and scrub the kitchen and bathrooms until they sparkle. After that, a quick, repetitive routine should keep your spaces neatly sorted. “I call it the ‘Two-Minute Tidy,’” says Amanda Omelusik, a professional home organizer at Room to Breathe in Calgary. “Simply clear counters and tabletops every night before bed to make sure no new mess accumulates before Christmas Day.” And make sure there’s plenty of room for visitors’ coats in your front-hall closet. If space is at a premium, consider bringing in a free-standing coat rack. Prepare yourself for snowy and muddy boots, too – additional mats or mud trays will save your floors (and sanity).

Two days before Christmas: Turn your attention to decorative matters and a memorable holiday tabletop

Hit the flower market now if you have visions of perfect roses gracing your dining table – fresh flowers usually reach their peak lushness in two days. Try to arrive soon after the market opens so you’ll have your pick of the prettiest bouquets. While you’re there, it’s not a bad idea to buy three mini saplings for a tabletop vignette.

Once you’re back home, set the table for the main event. Use your best linens as a base or, for a more casual look, a roll of kraft paper. The main goal is to set a festive foundation that protects the table from heat and spills. Bring out those special chargers or placemats, plus any gilt-edged glasses and napkins. Keep the centrepiece low so it won’t block eye contact between diners. A series of three to five small floral arrangements or a rope of cedar and eucalyptus (lit up with battery-operated minilights) that run the length of the table should suit the occasion perfectly.

You don’t need expensive or hard-to-find craft supplies to make elegant place cards – just pull a fragrant bunch of rosemary out of your fridge. “We suggest curving one long sprig into a circle, just a like a mini-wreath,” stylist Ann-Marie Favot of We Deck the Halls says. “Tie it with twine and finish with a bow. Make as many as you need, then write guests’ names on a piece of card stock and place them on top of the rosemary wreaths at each table setting.”

Next, pull out all your serving pieces and determine what you’ll use for each dish, from appetizers to mains and sides. Once you’ve determined what will go on each platter, plate and bowl, label all pieces with sticky notes – it’ll be a huge time- and brain-saver for when the house is buzzing with guests. “This system guarantees you won’t forget a casserole in the microwave or dinner rolls in the oven and you can easily transfer the food to its assigned platter when you’re ready to go,” Omelusik says.

Finally, assemble a self-service bar on a free-standing cart or console table – make sure it’s far enough from the kitchen that guests won’t be tempted to gather there while you’re working. Set out a selection of glasses, a corkscrew and a stack of cocktail napkins, plus small bowls for garnishes and an ice bucket to be filled the day of your gathering.

One day before Christmas: Focus on party planning

Clear space in the fridge to ensure you’ll have enough wine, beer and sparkling water properly chilled for the big day (and any unannounced drop-ins beforehand). Move unnecessary condiments and jars into a cooler or, if you have one, a second fridge in the garage or basement to make room for these holiday beverage essentials.

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Do a once-over of all real garlands on staircases and mantels, as well as wreaths and boughs. Replace or remove any sections that have become brittle or brown, or have lost their fragrance. If all else fails, do a quick spritz with an evergreen or balsam-scented room spray to make it seem like the greens are market-fresh. If you’ve got a fireplace, now’s the time to prestack kindling, logs and balled-up newspaper inside the firebox and make sure you’ve got a pile of dry logs ready for duty. Sweep up any mess and place a matchbook or lighter in a safe place beside the hearth. All you have to do is light a match on Christmas Eve and voilà! Instant ambience by a crackling fire for the whole family.

Do the last loads of laundry. In addition to bath towels and washcloths, make sure all tea towels are washed, folded and ready for use – you’ll be using every last one for handling hot plates, sopping up spills and drying wine glasses. While you’re waiting for the dryer to finish, freshen up the powder room. Stock up on special hand soaps and lotions. “Christmas scents are a fun way to add ambience,” Begg says. “We love peppermint, pine or red currant.” If you’re expecting a big crowd, use a tray of festive paper hand towels instead of one cloth towel, which will get (and stay) damp quickly.

Lastly, say yes to help. Though you felt brilliantly organized two days ago, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the final onslaught. Keep your Do and Make master lists handy so that when people ask, “Is there anything I can do?” you’ve got a starting point. If your lists are fully crossed-off, invite them to run the vacuum around the living room, find a fun holiday playlist on Spotify or run to the corner store for more cocktail mix.

Crunch time: Complete those last-minute touches that make the season special

Set up your coffee maker for Christmas morning with a tray of mugs, along with small spoons, a sugar bowl, and a sign that says “Help Yourself!” This way, each person can get his or her caffeine hit regardless of when the rest of the house stirs.

Allow yourself one hour to put the final flourishes on the last few gifts that haven’t yet been tucked under the tree. No more gift tags? No problem. Pluck a magnolia leaf from your wreath or stair rail garland and write the name with a metallic pen on the glossy side of the leaf’s surface. And to prepare for giftapalooza, “Have a bin or laundry basket set up for each person in the house,” Omelusik says. “When they open gifts, there’s a place to put everything and it’s easy to transport the basket to each person’s room so they don’t spread out all over the house.” She also suggests having garbage and recycling bags to help manage the immediate ribbon-and-paper pile between rounds of present-opening.

Fill the stockings that were hung with care, then fill a glass with the libation of your choice – whether it’s a mug of hot cocoa or a coupe filled with champagne. Put up your feet and propose a toast to yourself.

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