25 Holiday Hacks to Make Your Life a Little Easier This Season

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iStock

Chances are you’re already stressed out by the holidays. That’s no good. It feels like you don’t have enough time, enough money, or enough of a break during the break, which is why it’s important to take care of yourself and find shortcuts for making the holidays less tense.

Whether it’s decorating, wearing an ugly sweater to your office party, or finding the perfect gift, here are some holiday hacks to take the stress out of the season.

1. USE SANTA’S BAG TO ORGANIZE YOUR GIFTS.

Santa's Bag app screenshots
Santa's Bag

Santa's Bag, an excellent shopping list manager app, lets you keep tabs on your budget, your gift ideas, and your recipients so that no one leaves empty-handed—and you don’t end up with an empty wallet.

2. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE SHIPPING DAY ON DECEMBER 15TH.

Person delivering package to woman at house
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If you’re planning to purchase gifts online, you can shave a bit off the bottom line by doing it on December 15th, a.k.a. Free Shipping Day. As of this writing, more than 400 retailers are participating, including Kohl’s, Target, and Barnes & Noble.

3. FIND STORES THAT HONOR ONLINE PRICES.

woman looking at smartphone in clothing store
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Stores like Macy’s, Home Depot, and Bed Bath & Beyond will price match that perfect gift with the price on their website, and those savings can stack up quickly. Be careful to check for small print like blackout dates and be sure to have your phone with you to show the sales clerk.

4. PICK UP COOPERATIVE BOARD GAMES.

Photo of a family playing a board game
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While you’re price-matching and enjoying free shipping, check out board games like Pandemic, Castle Panic, and Forbidden Island to bring out the cooperative spirit while passing the time with your family. Games like TableTopics can also be a great way to launch some fun conversations.

5. TURN YOUR PUMPKINS INTO SNOWMEN.

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Just as there's always that one neighbor whose holiday lights are still twinkling come Valentine's Day, there's a good chance that there are still some pumpkins hanging around your neighborhood, even though we're more than a month past Halloween. If that's you, turn your laziness into a craft by piling your leftover pumpkins up and turning them into a snowman. It's simple to do, fun for the whole family, and gives you an Earth-friendly excuse for still having a jack o' lantern in December.

6. LET SANTA IN WITHOUT A CHIMNEY.

Santa
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If your child is worried about how Santa will visit the house without a chimney to climb down, pick up a Magic Key and hang it on the door Christmas Eve. You can also build a DIY chimney out of cardboard boxes.

7. LET APPS BE YOUR GUIDE.

Honey app
Honey

Try using an app like Hopper to help you optimize your flight or an app like Honey to automatically apply promo codes to online shopping trips. You can also use apps from stores you like to get special rewards and coupons.

8. INVITE YOUR CROCK POT TO PARTIES.

Crock-Pot
Amazon

Utilizing your slow cooker can be a big help for family dinners and parties. Recipes are usually simple and delicious, there’s enough for everyone, and you don’t have to be stuck in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun. When dinner’s done, make a big batch of hot cocoa or mulled wine.

9. SET UP A SECONDARY FRIDGE WHEN ENTERTAINING.

food in fridge
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Parties take up a lot of room in your refrigerator, so organize a cooler with condiments and extra ingredients you’ll need access to while cooking, or use it to stow random items you won’t need so you can use that valuable refrigerator real estate for drinks or party food essentials.

10. COOK AND BAKE AHEAD AS MUCH AS YOU CAN.

A photo of gingerbread cookies being iced
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Instead of cramming your cooking into a single day, reduce the stress of getting it all done on time by prepping foods in advance. Items like mashed sweet potatoes, beet soups, and veggie salads can be made up to a few days prior to the party. The same goes for several pies, dough-based deserts, and cookies. All you’ll have to do is bake and chat with your friends.

11. ENHANCE YOUR OVEN SPACE.

Betty Crocker 3-tier Oven Rack
Amazon

Just like with your precious refrigerator space, there’s never enough room in the oven for everything you want to cram in there. You can expand that space with a tiered oven rack; perfect for dishes like pies and casseroles.

12. STOCK UP ON BUTTER.

stack of butter
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Seriously. Almost every recipe uses it. You’re going to run out (and have to run to the crowded grocery store at the worst possible time).

13. USE SQUEEZE BOTTLES FOR KID-FRIENDLY ICING PROJECTS.

Girl and woman decorating cupcakes
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If you’re looking for a fun way to bring the little ones in on the baking without the Jackson Pollock-style messy aftermath, use condiment bottles to make it easier for small (and big) hands to apply that royal icing.

14. PICK UP BROKEN GLASS ... WITH SANDWICH BREAD.

Photo of a broken red wine glass on the floor
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These things happen (especially where there’s hot mulled wine available), but it’s annoying to need to pick up broken glass shards while you’ve got dozens of feet shuffling around the floor. The easiest, safest way to handle the situation is to grab a slice of sandwich bread (yes, really); press it on the ground to grab big and tiny bits of glass, then toss it in the trash.

15. MOVE THE CROWD TO AVOID DIRTY DISHES.

adults drinking wine in the living room
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The curse of hosting a party is that you don’t get to enjoy your own gathering. Clean-up can be a major culprit because you don’t want people chatting around a pile of dirty dishes, but people will start saying their goodbyes as soon as you rinse the last dish. To avoid both, have your guests move into a different area to visit after dinner and leave the dishes for the morning.

16. DE-STALE YOUR LEFTOVER CHIPS.

Bag of potato chips
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When you have five half-emptied bags of chips following a party, and you’re looking at eating nothing but chips for the next week, you can either feed the birds or take the inevitable staleness out of the chips by tossing them into your oven for a few minutes.

17. MAKE BOWS OUT OF TAPE.

holiday pattern Scotch Duct Tape
Amazon

Duck Brand makes duct tape in festive patterns, which you can use to make sturdy, attractive bows for presents and decorating. They have snowmen, penguins, and candy canes, and if you need to do some quick air conditioner repair work, you can always undo the bows.

18. TURN A MASON JAR INTO A SNOW GLOBE.

mason jar snow globe
Mashable Watercooler, YouTube

Looking for a unique, inexpensive keepsake for each holiday season? This mason jar snow globe is ingenious. It’s simple to make, and since it’s customizable, you can make one every year with craft-sized versions of Christmas trees, menorahs, or whatever your imagination invents.

19. USE A LASER PROJECTOR FOR YOUR OUTDOOR LIGHTS.

holiday lights projected onto a house
Amazon

If you don’t have the time, inclination, or a large enough ladder to string up lights all around the outside of your house, consider buying a laser projector to create an incredible design without all the hassle.

20. TAKE THE TANGLE OUT OF YOUR HOLIDAY LIGHTS.

holiday string lights
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If you find yourself wrestling with the tangled, Christmas light Kraken, it’s time to set your future self up with an organized solution by cutting your own cardboard holders for plastic bins, wrapping them on plastic coat hangers, or wrap them around tension rods before stowing them away.

21. GET YOUR WRAPPING PAPER SAFELY SORTED.

gift wrapping materials
iStock

Like lights, you can buy an expensive wrapping paper-specific storage container if you’d like. You can also use a wire wastepaper bin, a wine crate, clip them to plastic rings to hang on hooks on the back of a door, or keep them in a hanging garment bag. (Plus, ribbon rolls stays obedient when you keep them on a paper towel holder.)

22. IMPROVISE IF YOU RUN OUT OF WRAPPING PAPER.

wrapped gift
iStock

Instead of yet another trip to the store, you can use brown bags, map pages from an old atlas, newspaper pages, scrap fabric pieces, or your ugly Christmas sweater to creatively wrap a gift.

23. GET RID OF GIFT CARDS YOU DON’T WANT.

gift card
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Maybe you wanted Home Depot but they got you Starbucks. Or maybe you wanted Target but they got you Jiffy Lube. Either way, Gift Card Granny offers a way to sell unwanted gift cards and buy discounted ones from tons of stores.

24. GET RID OF YOUR TREE WITHOUT DROPPING THE NEEDLES.

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The beauty of a live Christmas tree is only rivaled by the metric ton of pine needles that fall off as you drag it out of your house. To avoid leaving a needle trail, wrap the tree in trash bags (or a special tree removal bag) before carrying it out. Just remember to remove the trash bags once you get it to the curb (or else your tree will end up at the garbage dump instead of being mulched).

25. REMEMBER TO TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF.

woman meditating on bed
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The holidays are demanding, and hacks can only trim your time and budget down so much. With so much extra duties on our plates, it’s important to actively plan some low-key relaxation time for yourself. Prepping a big family dinner or party? Maybe plan to get a quiet coffee with a friend the day before. Struggling to come up with activities for all your visiting relatives? Even five minutes of solo meditation can make a big difference.

Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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iStock

On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

The 13 Scariest Haunted Houses in America

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iStock

Horror lovers will feel right at home in New York or Ohio. Attractions in those states claim four out of 13 spots on Halloween expert Larry Kirchner’s new list of America’s scariest haunted houses. Drawing upon his 25 years of experience designing and installing Halloween attractions, Kirchner releases the list on his website, Hauntworld.com, each year.

This year, Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York, tops the list. A historic 18th-century manor provides a spooky backdrop to the haunt, which includes a theatrical hayride, corn maze, eight haunted attractions, and escape rooms. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show” (with everyone’s favorite: creepy clowns) will be one of the new themes offered this year, and another new section called “Two Raven’s Manor” will feature stunt actors and a magician.

The runner-up on Kirchner’s list is Field of Screams in Mountville, Pennsylvania. The attraction promises its hayride will be “the most disturbing ride of your life through thick rows of corn.” Expect to see demented doctors, evil nurses, chainsaw and ax murderers, and miscellaneous monsters.

Check out the full list of attractions below, and head to Haunt World’s website for additional details.

1. Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses: Ulster Park, New York
2. Field of Screams: Mountville, Pennsylvania
3. The Dent Schoolhouse: Cincinnati, Ohio
4. 13th Gate: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
5. Netherworld: Atlanta, Georgia
6. Nightmare on 13th: Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Haunted Schoolhouse & Laboratory: Akron, Ohio
8. Bennett’s Curse: Baltimore, Maryland
9. Haunted Overload: Lee, New Hampshire
10. Erebus: Pontiac, Michigan
11. Hell’s Gate: Lockport, Illinois
12. The Darkness: St. Louis, Missouri
13. Bayville Screampark: Bayville, New York

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