I LOVE this time of year! We do a lot during Advent, so I start preparations EARLY.
We've been working on Christmas gifts since October. This year, we decided to give everyone our favorite things, so got a stocking for each person, and are each contributing something ... Me: my favorite organic coconut lip balm (arriving in co-op package tomorrow), my husband: dried wild mushrooms he's harvested and dried himself (done), 15 year old: Reese's peanut butter trees (bought), 13 year old: trail mix (we're making it today), 11 year old: homemade soap (done!), 8 year old: gum (purchased); 5 year old: mismatched socks (done!).
We spend Thanksgiving in PA with my husband's family and do a little Christmas celebration while we're there.We're in CT, so 8.5 hour drive on a good day. We get the kids up at 1:30AM Thanksgiving morning and are on the road by 2AM. Everyone usually falls back to sleep within the first hour, and I drive. We have snacks, water, and music cds to entertain us, as well as travel bingo (where we look for things like barns, railroad tracks, bumper stickers, etc.). I stop every once in a while to stretch and apply hoteeze patches where I need them as I drive. I get to crash on the couch for an hour or so upon arrival, before the main festivities start.
Advent is big in our family. Each morning the kids get to unwrap a Christmas-themed book and we read it together. Along with the book is a clue to that night's Bible passage, so the kids have all day to try to figure out how the object (this year there's everything from duct tape and tissues to a rock and a cross) relates to Advent. I've already wrapped the books and objects and today I'll be printing out the Bible passages and putting them in the Advent calendar. I'm also packing for one family member a day - with seven people in our family, it takes seven days to get us all packed that way! LOL I've also been packing food (I have celiac and 3 gluten-free kids, my husband's family tries to accommodate, but I bring some of our food) and supplies for the trip for weeks now. We bring our airbed, because that's more comfortable for me to sleep on than the sofabed at my grandmother-in-law's where we stay. Spacing out all the packing helps a great deal.
We return from PA on the first day of Advent, and since I have all the Advent stuff done already, we simply get to enjoy ourselves. And since we've already gotten Christmas gifts done, I don't have to worry about that as well.
We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6, so the night before the kids either hang their stockings in the living room or leave their shoes outside for St. Nicholas to fill with goodies. I happen to have my Remi infusion later that day, so my parents are taking the kids overnight and my husband and I are making the kids' gifts that night ... or should I say, I'll watch my husband make the kids' fleece sleeping blankets/bags that night! LOL On Christmas Eve we have a potluck brunch at my sister's house and we go to church (3 of us sing in the choir as well!) in the evening and then have a simple family dinner at home (usually something I have going in the crockpot to make it easy). The kids then get to open up their gift from my husband and I before going to bed. Christmas morning we all get to open our "Christmas Angel" gifts - on Thanksgiving night we put our names in a hat and then buy or make that person a gift for Christmas with a $5 spending limit...as well as secretly doing nice things for that person during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. These are usually the kids favorite gifts! And that's it for gifts (3 gifts - one on St. Nicholas Day, one on Christmas Eve, and one on Christmas Day) until we got to my parents' house for a lasagna lunch, where there are gifts from grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
We used to do tons of gifts and activities and running around and craziness. I like our 3 gifts on 3 days with lots of anticipation in between and our daily rituals of book reading, Bible reading, and family time.
I should mention that the St. Nicholas gift is always an activity (and some chocolate gold coins!). This year the three youngest and I are going to see Straight No Chaser (2 days later!!!) and our teens and my husband are going to see the Hobbit the following weekend.
So I guess I"d say that doing as much preparation beforehand and simplifying things is what has worked best for me.