Clear the chaos Here's how to pre-party and after-party like a holiday professional. And how to ditch the stress along the way

A good party host continually circles the room, revs up conversations teetering on awkward silences and manages pesky behind-the-scenes operations. He or she has to uphold the no-guest-left-behind policy. Still, the most attentive host can easily leave guests feeling out of place when nonalcoholic beverages aren't provided.

Get a jumpstart on your holiday cooking by making cookies ahead of time
Get a jumpstart on your holiday cooking by making cookies ahead of time, then freezing them until they´re needed.

It's about time to bring out the Christmas lights, boxes of ornaments and holiday cookbooks.

Quick, take a deep breath.

"Don't let your anxiety overwhelm you," says Lisa Jacobs, a New York City-based professional organizer. "Remember that the anticipation is worse than the event. Once you begin, your motivation will surge you onto completion."

One of the most challenging parts of holiday madness is organizing and making everything flow without an abundance of clutter. Here's how to do it like a pro:

THE PRE-PARTY

• Get a new set of storage bins. "I recommend the one-time investment of transparent containers with dividers for ornament storage," says Seattle interior designer Amely Wurmbrand. "You can see what's inside without labels."

• Use an old baby-changing table and create a your wrapping nook. "The rolls of wrapping paper fit in the top and don't fall out," says Mary Davis, author of "The Entrepreneurial Mom" (Turner Pub. Co., 2007). Wrap your gifts on it and prevent back strain since it's the perfect height. "The shelves and drawers are added storage," Davis says.

• Bake and freeze. Marilyn Gordon, owner of Candlelite Inn Bed & Breakfast in Bradford, N.H., makes all her holiday cookies in November.

• Get rid of clutter, Jacobs says. "Remember, there's no need to put on show every photo, trophy and piece of memorabilia you have. Look for uniformity in décor. "A set of matching, simple picture frames, even if they are different sizes, looks much better than a collection of all different ones." She recommends sticking the stuff in the basement or attic - rooms that guests won't see.

• Start chucking. "That macaroni Santa ornament your son made in first grade was adorable when he was in first grade, but now that he's 30 and has children of his own, let the macaroni Santa go," says Matt Baier, a professional organizer in Stamford, Conn.

"Set a limit from the beginning.

Maybe the ornament is honored on the tree for two years before it is photographed and tossed."

• Don't display every decor item you have. "Sometimes that can create clutter rather than a festive mood," says Regina Leeds, Zen organizer and author of the best-selling "One Year To ..." series.

THE AFTER-PARTY

• Have an open-me-first box. "That's what you'll use next year to make everything easier," says Alicia Rockmore, author of "Everything (Almost) In Its Place" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2008). Items like your Christmas tree stand and lighting should be packed in a "first" box. This way you can at least get to that stuff for a quick jump-start to decorating. "There's nothing like the Christmas season, but there's always the looming dread of having to clean it all up," she says.

• Hang tablecloths, place mats and napkins on skirt hangers before putting back in storage. This eliminates ironing next year, says Laura Leist, president of the Mount Laurel, N.J.-based National Association of Professional Organizers.

• Make gift lists. Karin Flagg of Austin, Tex., keeps lists of not only what she got, but what she gave. "That way, I won't get them the same thing next year," says Flagg, a professional organizer. You can also write down future ideas for presents and recipes.

• Save wrapping paper, bows and ribbon. "I keep all bows in a plastic bag when opening gifts and the next day, gather them in a plastic box," Flagg says. It's a great item to use next year. Tissue paper from gift bags works well when wrapping delicate ornaments, Wurmbrand says.

• Avoid a pine-needle mess. "When setting up the new tree in the stand, place a plastic bag around the base of the tree, and cover with a tree skirt," Flagg says. "When you take the tree out, pull up the bag and haul out for recycling. No needles!"

• And finally, reward yourself. "Schedule a night out with friends or get a pedicure," says Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist in Wexford, Pa. "Knowing there is something good ahead gives you something to look forward to as you're cleaning up."

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