10/25/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Andrea Gargotta: 8 Tips for Painting a New Holiday This Season

By Andrea Gargotta

Leaves are turning . . . sweaters are pulled out of drawers . . . the days are shorter . . . and then there is the AHHH. Christmas music before Halloween . . . endless commercials for all the things we do not need . . . the family negotiation of where to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's -- did I mention all this before Halloween?

I have always had mixed emotions about this time of year. I know I am not alone in this. Flooding memories of my parents arguing . . . the reality of Santa . . . the end of my innocence. And the other side . . . the belly smile I get remembering the big family dinner with my cousins and ice skating on the frozen puddle that made up our front yard. And the big brown bear I got from Santa.

In holiday seasons past, I often fell into the comfortable pattern of over-scheduling and over-spending. I typically experienced an overall sadness the day after Christmas. I ended up putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect that I was left with nothing to celebrate.

I began to shift a lot after I had my children. I allowed myself to let Christmas become something new. As I created this for my children, I, too, breathed in a new Christmas. Instead of doing everything to create what I "thought" was a Norman Rockwell painting version of the holidays (which only caused panic attacks), I became free to create my own version. What a lovely path I was now on.

A few years ago, I started to paint my own "Andrea Gargotta painting" of Christmas. It's quite simple, and it involves less of the external and more of the internal. Here are my tips for painting a new holiday this season -- may they inspire you!

Give yourself permission to purchase gifts without feeling any guilt.
As hard as I have tried, I still cannot escape my hard wiring for over-buying gifts for my kids, family, and friends. I am working on that! I am also working on not judging myself for it. I am not ready to let that part go, and that is okay. It is one of the ways I express my love for my circle.

Create your own holiday.
Usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I host "Thank-Mas." By hosting an event in between the traditional holidays, I make room for all of my family members to come. This frees me up on Thanksgiving and Christmas to spend it the way I want to, without feeling pulled in a hundred different directions. But most importantly, it allows me to spend time with my kids, so that we can celebrate the heart of Christmas. We cook together, sing carols together, and create our own memories. There are lots of photos. And lots of laughter.

Host a small gift exchange.
If I invite my friends and family to this event, I like to do a small gift exchange. Everyone brings a child gift and an adult gift. The gifts are put into two boxes. I number each gift with a sticker. I number the bottom of each plate and when the guests are done eating they turn the plate over and find their gift. I involve my kids in this -- beforehand they make all of the stickers.

Have a photo station as part of your new holiday or as a separate event.
You will need a Polaroid camera (and lots of extra film!). Set it up in a bedroom or in a quiet area. Gather a bunch of props that are likely stored away in a closet or box--a Santa hat, reindeer antlers, holiday lights, a small tree. Your guests can take pictures of themselves. Ask them to take two. This way they can take one and you can save one. Once you have collected them all, scan them into your computer. There are endless websites where you can upload images and create books, mugs, shirts -- pick one memento and order it for each family member and friend as a follow-up gift.

Don't forget the cookies.
The day before your get-together, make cookie dough shapes. Place them on individual cookie sheets. Cover them with plastic wrap and freeze. (This can actually be done a few weeks prior to your soiree.) Also make a large batch of icing. Divide the batch into squeeze bottles with the food color of your choice. Before the party set up a table with butcher paper. In the center, place colored icings, sprinkles, and candies. When guests want to create, simply hand them the cookie tray. Decorate and bake. Have cellophane bags and ties at the ready so they can take them home and enjoy them.

Set up a movie screen and project old holiday movies.
This works well in an outdoor area if you are in a warm climate; if not, you may need to take over the family room. Set up blankets and lots of pillows for lounging. Make a big thermos of hot cocoa and set up a hot cocoa station with flavored whipped cream choices. Make a batch with old-fashioned whipping cream and a tad of sugar. Separate and mix in vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa, peppermint, or Kahlua -- anything you like! So fun and easy.

Make some ornaments.
I love making dough ornaments. It's a simple recipe of flour, salt, and warm water that you knead together into a dough-like consistency and then let harden. It is easy to use food coloring to make different colors. Everyone can make an ornament and take it home for their tree.

Don't skip the classics.
Read Twas the Night Before Christmas while eating warm from-the-oven cookies! Snuggle under blankets and ask Grandma or Uncle Bill to read this wonderful story to the family.

Today I can say I am excited for the holidays. (Although I would like to have a word or two with those in charge of getting started before Halloween!)

Professional chef and party planner Andrea Beth Gargotta has built a career on effortlessly dishing up a variety of healthy, exotic dishes. She is known for her art of detail in every aspect of the culinary experience -- from menu development to shopping to clean up. She opened and ran her highly acclaimed craft-services company, Andrea's Craft Service, with the goal of creating a healthier food experience on the film set, gaining admirers such as Tim Allen, Mary J. Blidge, Michael Bay, Joe Pytka, Adam Sandler, Jane Seymour, and countless other A-listers. She is at work on a book about her culinary experiences.