Over the hills and through the woods to your house to sleep they come -- which would be terrific if only you had time to treat holiday houseguests as if they were staying at Martha Stewart's house.
The High Priestess of Entertaining says, "The first thing I do is pick them up at the airport, or wherever. If I can't go myself, I send my car."
While sending one's car may indeed be a big time saver, most of us must find other ways to make houseguests feel welcome even as we economize on the time and energy it takes to do it.
"Put them to work," says Julee Rosso, co-author of "The Silver Palate Cookbook" and now proprietor of the elegantly casual Wickwood Inn bed and breakfast in Saugatuck, Mich. She laughs as she says it, but the humor is intended to underscore the seriousness of her advice. "The participatory thing really makes people feel comfortable in your home.
"The underlying premise is that the easiest way to make people feel comfortable is to empower them," she says. "Make them the first drink and then show them where the bar is set up."
She also suggests getting guests involved in the cooking. "If someone's specialty is omelets, then say, 'Hey, would you mind helping me Sunday morning fixing omelets for everyone?' Or offer to let them prepare the meal. People really do like doing those things."
For entertainment, Ms. Rosso says today people enjoy slow-paced, simple pleasures such as a walk after dinner, a fire in the fireplace, caroling around the neighborhood at Christmas.
"Now is the time to indulge in sentimentality," none of which takes extra time to orchestrate or pull off, she says.
And to ensure that your time is well spent, Ms. Rosso says, "Only invite your favorite people."
Here are more tips from Ms. Rosso for preparing and caring for houseguests graciously and efficiently:
* Make simple, tried-and-true dishes ahead of time and microwave or bake them while you sit by the fire with guests. Soup or baked pastas are good bets. Buy crusty bread to go with it. An uncomplicated, down-home dinner tends to be a real treat for guests because so many people regularly dine out to save time at home.
* Buy specialty prepared foods such as hors d'oeuvres and fancy cookies. "And don't beat yourself up for not making them," she adds. Dessert can be as easy as putting some fancy cookies on a plate and making a fresh, flavorful pot of coffee served with flavored coffee lighteners. For breakfast, set out a variety of cereals, a bowl of berries and bought breads and/or muffins. Keep everything simple.
* Let guests help with Christmas preparations and decorations instead of doing it all before they arrive. Trim the tree and make cookies -- even if they're slice and bake -- as a group.
* Have the guests' bedroom or sleeping area ready for them. "Provide magazines, books, extra shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, fluffy towels and a robe, if you can."
Tips from the Time Saver notebook:
* If you have children, assign each one a small, but necessary housekeeping duty that will keep the house in good running order during the visit. For example, give one child a sponge in a color of his or her choice for wiping down the guest's bathroom sink and counter after breakfast.
* Children also also serve as entertaining hosts while you take a break. Let them map out a walk around the neighborhood that shows guests their favorite play areas or best friends' houses. Have them teach a computer-shy person a game on the family PC. Or let them take guests to a sporting or cultural event of common interest. You provide the tickets, keys to the car (for an adult guest to drive, of course) and a map in an envelope prepared ahead of time.
Do you feel harried, overwhelmed? Call Time Saver. Our panel of time-management experts and people who have just plain been there might be able to help. In future columns, we'll offer some solutions to your professional, home or leisure time-management problems. Please leave your name, city and daytime phone number when you call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in 6220 after the greeting.