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Clara's new white holiday dress has a candy cane stuck to the back - Happy Holidays!

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We have all been there. Its 5pm on Christmas Eve, the First Night of Chanukah or whatever winter holiday we are celebrating for that matter, and the kids have already started to meltdown faster than a snowball next to a fireplace.

They were perfectly dressed just an hour ago. The gifts are packed up ready to take to Aunt Millie's house. The dog's been fed and walked. You just need to frost the cookies you promised to bring when everything goes South!

The little bow-tie you carefully tied to little John's collar has been ripped off and is on the floor. Amy's hair bow fell out. Tyler's dress shoes have somehow ended up off his little 2-year-old feet and into the gift bag. Clara's new white holiday dress has a candy cane stuck to the back.

OK...take a big breath, count to 10 and exhale slowly. Let's turn back the clock and see how we may have been able to avoid this.

We all enjoy the idea of getting together with family for the holidays, up until the moment we have to get together with family for the holidays. Why does the experience have to be so exhausting and stressful? With a little pre-planning and a few short cuts, the idyllic holiday get together can really happen.

We just have to start planning it in August! Just kidding.

In reality, if you plan out your holidays a few weeks in advance and employ a few easy strategies, the holidays will be less stressful and actually fun for everyone.

So what should you do?

1. Don't over book the family

It's always hard to say no to one family member over the other when everyone wants to spend time together, but dragging your family to more than one family event a day or night is just too much when you have little ones. Try and limit your visits to one family member a day rather than trying to do Grandmas for breakfast, Aunt Millie's for lunch and the In-laws for dinner. With most kids having a week off from school, try to break things up a bit. Spend Christmas Day with the In-Laws, Christmas Eve with Mom and Dad and then arrange a lunch or breakfast visit with other family and friends during the holiday week. Spreading the love over more than two days will help you keep your sanity. It also keeps the kids busy over that endless vacation week and gives relatives something to look forward too.

2. Don't over commit

If you have little kids, you have a lot to do. It doesn't matter how many children you have or whether you work in or outside of the home. When you have children, you are always on call and always juggling. So when you are invited to someone's house for the holidays, and they ask you to bake your famous cookies, or just bring something, keep it simple! Offer to bring a salad, a bowl of fruit or something you can easily pick up pre-made at your local food store. If you really feel like putting your personal touch on something, whip up a fast dressing or bring extra fun things that the other guests can add like cranberries, nuts, cheese, or fruit. Don't agree or volunteer to bring something that requires you to add one more job to your already crazy schedule.

3. Do schedule time for NOTHING in your schedule

When you know your kids are going to have to stay up later than usual, or will have a day or two of holiday excitement, schedule a nice big chunk of down time prior to and after the big event. When kids spend the morning shopping for last minute gifts, running around doing errands, baking and frosting cookies with mom and dropping off items at the post office, you and your kids will be exhausted and won't have the band width for a fun family evening. Consider making a shopping list of all the gifts and items you are going to need for the holiday season a few weeks before. This will help you space tasks out so they don't all need to be done at once. If you give your kids a few hours of quite down time, and even a nap for you and the kids before the trip to grandmas, you are much more likely to avoid any meltdowns before family get togethers.

4. Make Them Come To You
Sometimes it just easier to have the family come to you. Let family know that for the next few years, while your kids are little, it would be much easier for everyone to come and enjoyed the holidays at your house. When kids have access to their own space, their own toys and can be take a nap in their own beds, they will enjoy the holidays more and so will you and the rest of the family.

5. And last but not least.... Don't Stress About the Dress

Unless you are going to a holiday wedding, let the kids wear something that makes them comfortable. Forcing kids to dress like they are playing a part in the Nutcracker will only make them upset and uncomfortable. Let's face it, putting our kids in neck ties and tight dresses with big puffy skirts that they can't get stained only causes unnecessary angst. Need a holiday photo to send out to your family and friends? Dress everyone up a few days or weeks before so you can take that perfect photo without the stress of house guests and all the things that can stain clothes and mess up everyone's hair. This way on Christmas morning, or Hanukah, or New Year's or whatever you are celebrating you can all hang out in comfy clothes and enjoy the time together!

Whatever you do during the holiday season, remember that it's not about how great our cookies look, how great we look or how perfect our outdoor decorations are, it's about being grateful for little things and spending time with those we love.

Happy Holidays!