courtesy james wojcik

Story highlights

Both symmetry and asymmetry work to decorate the outside of your house

An emergency gift stash can save you a trip to the store or embarrasment

Leave yourself nine minutes to clean your house before company arrives

CNN —  

Here’s a partridge-in-a-pear-tree approach to dealing with anything (and anyone) that the season throws your way.

12 outdoor touches
’Tis the season to festoon your front door. If you’re not a natural when it comes to outdoor decor, here’s an easy recipe that will delight neighbors, friends, and you.

1 wreath, fresh or dried: Find magnificent options at shopterrain.com, or use florist wire to embellish a basic wreath with limes, berries, and feathery stems.

2 urns flanking the door: The right lightweight fiberglass picks will look weighty and majestic. Try ballarddesigns.com, homedepot.com, and jamaligarden.com.

2 faux boxwoods for filling the urns: Tall cone-shaped topiaries are classic and blend well with any style of architecture. One that’s about four feet fits a 20-inch-high urn well; consider the Boxwood Cone topiary ($185, cfdnewyork.com for stores). Cover “dirt” with a layer of pinecones if you want to add a natural element.

6 battery-operated outdoor pillar candles: Various heights for lining steps asymmetrically.

1 box of glass orbs: In a single color for turning a small, sculptural bare tree or shrub into something magical. Best to choose a tree away from strong wind gusts and kid activity. Check out inexpensive shatterproof ornaments from such sources as christmascentral.com, bronners.com, and lnt.com.

Real Simple: Holiday celebrations around the world

11 gifts for giving
Create an emergency-present bin and you won’t have to run to the store every time you need a hostess gift or be caught empty-handed when a friend shows up with chocolate truffles. Don’t overthink this—just stash items in your own price range that have the potential to please a number of recipients.

Some ideas:
Modern objects for the mantel or a bookcase
Tech toys, like a portable speaker or a mini camera
Candles and soap in ready-to-give wrapping and clean, earthy, gender-crossing fragrances
Lush journals that you can personalize (“Here’s a trip diary for your upcoming vacation!”)
iTunes gift cards (a year-round blessing) for tough demographics, like teens
A humor book whose cover alone makes you laugh out loud (think Sedaris, Stewart, Fey)
Containers to hold treats (a beautiful bottle or an artful plate that you can fill with holiday goodies).

Keep your emergency-gift stash on a high shelf in the linen closet or in a rolling under-bed box—and toss in lovely presents you receive that are not right for you but appropriate for regifting.

Real Simple: The best and worst appetizer choices

10 household fixes
These are quick, clever strategies for tackling those pesky problems that have been irking you all year long (before your mother zeroes in on them).

Furniture scratches: Open a fresh walnut and rub the meat directly onto the spot; the oil masks marks on various types of wood.

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Smudges on painted walls: Add a splash of white vinegar to warm water, then rub out marks with a soft cloth.

Slow-moving drains and garbage disposals: Pour in ½ cup baking soda, followed by ½ cup vinegar; let sit for 2 hours. Run warm water, or turn on the disposal for a few seconds.

Peeling wallpaper: Use an angled artist’s paintbrush to apply wallpaper-seam adhesive (sold at hardware stores) to the underside of the paper, then press flat with a paint roller.

Less-than-fresh fridge: Add a few drops of vanilla extract to a wet cloth, then wipe down drawers and shelves. For dried-on spills, mix equal parts vinegar and dish soap in a spray bottle, spritz, let sit for 10 minutes, then wipe.

Scuff marks on dishes: Mix cream of tartar and water to buff out marks. For tea and coffee stains on mugs, rub with a 50-50 combination of salt and lemon juice.

Dusty leaves: Use a clean, wide soft-bristle paintbrush to sweep dust from large-leafed plants. For smaller plants, use a blush brush.

Bottom gunk in narrow vases: Fill with warm water and drop in 2 denture tablets (you can break them first). Swish the solution around, let sit for 1 hour, and rinse.

Dirty tops of pillar candles: Wipe with a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol.

Grease marks between double-glass oven doors: Use a rubber band to secure a damp cotton cloth around a metal spatula; slip it through the bottom vent of the door. After a few passes, swap the damp cloth for a dry one.

Real Simple: 50 best holiday cookie recipes

9 minute cleanup
Your rapid-fire plan for shining up critical (a.k.a. guest-visible) zones when you’re down to the wire.

Supplies needed: Broom, microfiber cloths, glass cleaner, disinfecting wipes, 2 laundry baskets, and 2 clean tube socks.

Minute 1: Step outside and use the broom to dust cobwebs and debris from the door, the door frame, and the front windows. Sweep the stoop.

Minute 2: In the entryway, use a damp microfiber cloth to dust the console, lamps, and any other furnishings. Toss backpacks and shoes in a laundry basket and stash in a bedroom closet.

Minutes 3 to 5: In the powder room, spray mirrors with glass cleaner and rub in circles with a clean micro fiber cloth. With the disinfecting wipes, clean the vanity, the faucet, and the soap dish. With new wipes, swipe the toilet handle, the top of the tank, the lid, and the seat. Wielding wipes in both hands, clean the edges of the floor. Set out fresh hand towels and empty the trash.

Minutes 6 to 7: In the kitchen, use the disinfecting wipes to clean the counter-tops. (There’s no time to move small appliances; hit only exposed surfaces.) Put dirty dishes in the dishwasher and empty the trash.

Minute 8: For the living room, grab a basket and toss in any clutter (school-books, dog toys, remotes). With a damp cloth, dust exposed furniture tops.

Minute 9: Run upstairs and shut all the bedroom doors. Put tube socks on your hands inside out and, backing down the stairs, swipe the staircase of dust. Done! (Don’t forget to remove your dirty sock-gloves before greeting guests.)

Real Simple: Easy ways to reduce holiday stress

8 hosting staples
Shorten your shopping list by keeping these long-lasting treats (shown opposite) on hand. Make these goodies your go-tos and you’ll never have to think about appetizers again.

Wasabi peas inspire serious sipping. (They’re hot, hot, hot!) Good for getting the party started.
Green olives are a classic and just right if you’re putting out only one thing.
Artichoke pesto, an upscale alternative to onion dip.
Salted nuts—mix store-bought almonds and pistachios.
Cornichons are perfect with spicy cured meats and hard cheeses.
Herb-infused vodka will please those in the know.
Caramel popcorn works with either drinks or coffee.
Pepper relish gives goat cheese a kick. Or include it on a crowd-pleasing ham platter (see page 192 for details).

Real Simple: 6 ways to have healthy holidays

7 planning pointers
Add these to-dos to your date book and subtract some stress.