The holiday season has snuck up again without warning. The air is cooler, the nights are longer and Christmas carols have replaced your favorite tunes as the background score to your daily activities. You suddenly notice a fully trimmed evergreen in front of the Starbucks you stop at every morning on your way to work. It appears to have sprung fully grown from the concrete overnight.
While they may bring a sense of anticipation along with fond memories of Christmases past, the holidays are also fraught with dangers - to your mental and physical well-being, to your bank account, to your pets - even, at times, to your personal safety. Knowing how to navigate this holiday "minefield" can mean the difference between a joyful holiday season and one that leaves you exhausted, remorseful and on a strict diet come January.
TREATS, MEALS CAN ADD UP TO A LOT OF EXTRA POUNDS
Controlling your consumption of holiday "treats" is easier if you don't allow yourself to get too hungry and you give yourself permission to indulge occasionally, according to Laura Harris, owner of So Simple Nutrition.
The biggest thing is not shortchanging yourself on regular eating," Harris says.
The first test comes at Halloween. "When you're really hungry, that's when all that sugar's going to look even better to you."
Harris says the biggest culprit of the holiday season is "the three-o'clock-candy bowl on a co-worker's desk."
Harris calls it "the-three-o'clock-candy" because that's usually the time of day a 9-to-5 employee is typically ravenous - several hours after lunch and several hours before dinner.
The trick to keeping yourself from diving into that candy bowl, Harris says, can be as simple as bringing a healthful, satisfying alternative.
If you have a snack already there, the candy isn't so appealing, because you don't also have that physiological hunger.
Most of us think there's no " safe" way to handle Thanksgiving, since the holiday is defined by a large meal with rich, calorie-laden food (not to mention the pies!). Harris says a typical Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings is about 2,500 calories. An average-sized woman - 5 feet 4 inches, 130 pounds - consumes between 500 and 600 calories at each meal, according to Harris. A typical day's worth of calories for that same woman would be between 1,800 and 2,200.
Her advice? "Do not skip meals during the day. That just makes you eat more because you're starving. And your ability to know when you're satisfied is skewed. So eat regularly throughout the day."
And if you do overeat, and Aunt Marlene's couch is starting to look awfully enticing, look away, get up and go for a walk. "Even with a 10-minute, leisurely walk you will feel more energized, and it actually helps with digestion," Harris says.
REMEMBER TO KEEP YOUR COOL
Stress is pretty much a given during the holidays, especially if you are the matriarch of the family, who typically assumes responsibility for giving the holidays that magical, slice-of-heaven-on-earth quality everyone seems to remember and expect (if only vaguely, probably because it rarely has any basis in reality).
If you are the woman of the house, and it's your job to buy and wrap the Christmas gifts, decorate the house and entertain, in addition to your work and child care responsibilities, licensed marriage and family therapist Karen Anderson has some advice for you.
"Cutting down on stress around the holiday season may be managed through planning and appropriate expectations," Anderson says.
" There is no 'right' way to 'do' the holiday," she adds. "For each family it may be different. Much of the stress comes from attempting to live to an ideal of the media - the 'Happy Thanksgiving,' the 'Merry Christmas,' etc. To magically put aside financial stress, family conflict or discord for one or two days and create a magical experience generates considerable stress."
Anderson says it's important to have a genuine conversation with your family in which you explore what each person's goal is for the holiday. Then the family as a whole can agree on what would create a connected holiday experience and the best way to get there.
" The connection that comes to mind when speaking of the holidays will not be found in the gifts or the holiday trim," she warns. "However, it may be found in coming together to do the family traditions or rituals."
Don't stop when you appear to have realistic expectations, Anderson says. "Generate a plan to fulfill them. Be prepared to ask for help and delegate. ... Finances and time are very real constraints. Make a budget and stick to it. "
POLICE: STAY EVER VIGILANT THIS SEASON
Unfortunately, the holidays are also fraught with some very real dangers to ourselves and our loved ones. Your adorable little trick-or-treaters could be missed by passing motorists if they're not crossing the street safely. A dinner guest trying to make points with your poodle by offering her food from the table could unintentionally poison your pet. That beautifully decorated Christmas tree could go up in flames if it's not properly maintained or even just set up in the wrong spot. And all that time and money you spent to get the perfect toy for little Timmy could be for naught if you forget to lock your car door or leave tempting purchases in plain sight in your vehicle.
Marcus Martin, public information officer for the Metropolitan Police Department, says most people assume unsafe candy is the biggest danger to children at Halloween, but crossing a dark street in an unfamiliar neighborhood is actually a more real hazard.
"It really comes down to parents being parents," Martin says. "Nothing replaces parents sitting down with their children and telling them not every motorist is sober or looking out for them."
The biggest danger to pets during the holidays is "people food," especially chocolate.
Most dog owners are aware that chocolate is toxic to their pet. It contains an alkaloid called theobromine that is in the same family as caffeine and is a type of stimulant. Neither dogs nor cats have the ability to metabolize theobromine as quickly as humans, which is what causes the danger of toxicity, even in small amounts, according to The Humane Society's website.
Chocolate is also toxic to cats, but cats are much less likely than dogs to eat chocolate, since they are unable to distinguish sweet taste sensations from others.
Theobromine is much more concentrated in dark chocolate, which makes it more lethal to your pets, but any chocolate or chocolate product should be avoided, according to Susie Costa, a veterinarian at Legacy Animal Hospital.
"A small amount of milk chocolate for a big dog is probably not a big deal, but a large amount of dark chocolate for a small dog is a big deal," Costa says.
Signs of chocolate toxicity include tremors, nervousness, vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate and, in severe cases, seizures and death.
Other "people food" to watch out for are any foods containing the sugar-free sweetener xylitol, which can cause rapid hypoglycemia and liver failure in dogs. Grapes and raisins are also toxic to pets.
Obviously, any type of foreign body ingestion is dangerous to pets. Costa found that out the hard way last Christmas shortly after adopting a 130-pound bull mastiff.
" He wasn't used to being an indoor dog," she explains. "I left him in one night and he ate part of the Christmas tree and all my kids' Christmas presents."
Costa's dog survived the night and will be celebrating another Christmas this year. But she stresses the importance of prompt intervention whenever a pet is in distress. "Call poison control or a veterinarian."
Christmas trees are the culprits behind an estimated 240 home fires each year, according to the National Fire Protection Association and U.S. Fire Administration. If a live tree is used, freshness is key. " Old trees can be identified by bouncing the tree trunk on the ground. If many needles fall off, the tree has been cut too long, has probably dried out, and is a fire hazard," the Fire Administration advises.
Keeping Christmas trees away from heat sources, such as fireplaces and heat vents, also is important. A live tree should not be left up for longer than two weeks, according to the Fire Administration, and the tree stand should be filled with water at all times.
Everyone knows that muggings and break-ins are more common during the holidays, but there are strategies to avoid becoming another statistic, according to Martin.
"Every year we have to warn people not to leave gifts and packages in plain view in the car," he says. "The perp walks by and what is he going to do? He's going to break into the car."
Thieves are on the lookout for shoppers carrying a lot of cash, Martin adds, so be prepared.
"Park close to the building and park under lights if possible," he says. "If you have to be leaving late at night, make sure there's security that can walk you or watch you get to your car."
Protecting your home during the holidays can be as simple as being observant, says Martin, of knowing who your neighbors are and knowing when something is out of place.
He urges people to use their common sense. "Even in 2012, we still have to remind people to lock their car door. Some people even still leave the front door of their house unlocked.
" Make sure your home illumination is adequate and your vegetation is cut back."
And lock your side gate.
"Perps love to stand by your gate and see if anyone is watching them," he explains. "If the coast is clear, that's when they break in, via a window or a sliding glass door."