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The gift of a stress-free season

Between working, exercising, managing your social calendar and caring for your family, life is more than a full-time job. Then come the holidays, when you're expected to squeeze shopping, cooking, wrapping, decorating and entertaining (and possibly even caroling, if you're really gung-ho) into your already maxed-out schedule. "Women worry about 12 things a day, men worry about three," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of Self-Nurture (Penguin, 2001). "For a lot of women, the holidays are the straw that breaks the camel's back." The key to making it to January with your sanity intact is remembering to take some time for yourself. On these pages, our gift to you: permission to spoil yourself this holiday season--with a rundown of the best ways to do it. Enjoy!

1. Treat yourself to one long, luxurious bath a week. If you view your tub as nothing more than a place to get clean, you're missing out on a world of pampering possibilities. Take the phone off the hook, hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign (make one if you have to) on the door and give yourself a seriously relaxing soak.

For a true spa experience, attach Pretika's Spa Massaging Bath Pillow ($30; pretika.com) onto the back of the tub to support your head and neck, and feel the tension melt away. Then, add the purely self-indulgent Me! Bath Ice Creams from eBubbles ($7 each; ebubbles.com) to your bath water; on contact with water, these mineral-rich balls fizz, releasing good-for-your-skin ingredients like milk and honey. (They're available in 33 flavors--from Peaches 'n' Cream to Pink Lemonade.) If you simply want a traditional lots-of-bubbles bath, sink into a tub filled with Just Add Water Calm Evening Bubble Bath ($30; 800-208-1922) with hydrating kukui-nut oil; follow your bath with a moisturizer like Aveeno Stress Relief Moisturizing Lotion with calming lavender, chamomile and ylang-ylang ($8; at drugstores).

Short-on-time alternative Light a heavenly scented candle such as Manuel Canovas' Palais d'Ete, a mix of jasmine, peony and honeysuckle scents, or Brune et d'Or, which gives off seasonal notes of cinnamon, myrrh and vanilla (from $18; amenwardy.com). Breathe in the delicious aroma and feel the stress drift away.

2. Put yourself on your holiday list. Why should everyone else get all the goodies? Treat yourself to a relaxing spa treatment--or turn your bathroom into a sanctuary and indulge at home. Basic Knead's Detox-in-a-Box kit ($39; basicknead.com) includes bath salts, a scrub mitt, massage lotion and massage tank top that shows you precisely where to press to reduce tension. To satisfy a sweet tooth (without sabotaging your healthy diet), try DuWop Buttercream Dessert for Your Skin ($17; duwoponline.com), a decadent moisturizer with the irresistible scent of buttercream frosting. For a toe-tally refreshing experience, try Lather Eucalyptus Foaming Foot Scrub with Pumice ($18; latherup.com); the exfoliating formula boosts circulation to relieve tired feet.

Short-on-time alternative Spritz yourself--from head to toe--with something delicious. The Healing Garden Lavender-theraphy Relaxation Body Mist uses a combination of hydrators and tranquil scents (chamomile and valerian) to pamper skin--and senses ($9; at drugstores). And there's also the Farmaesthetics Cool Aloe Mist ($24; farmaesthetics.com), which fuses pure organic aloe vera with essential oils of calming lavender and uplifting bergamot to hydrate skin.

3. Use your head (for something other than remembering shopping lists). Nothing releases pent-up tension like a good scalp massage. Turn it into a hair and scalp treatment by adding conditioning hair oil: Warm a cup of the oil in the microwave for no more than 20 seconds (test it first with the very tip of your finger to make sure it's not too hot), then massage onto a dry scalp for up to 10 minutes. After using a wide-tooth comb to distribute the oil from the scalp to the ends of your hair, wrap your head in a warm towel for at least 10 minutes (you can heat the towel in the microwave for up to a minute). Tip: When it's time to rinse, apply shampoo and work into a lather; then rinse. (Wetting the hair first makes oil harder to wash out.) Shampoo again to remove any remaining greasiness. Oils we love: Philip B. Rejuvenating Oil ($29; philipb.com), a blend of lavender, gardenia, sweet almond, jojoba and other oils that restore hair and scalp health. Ecco Bella Hair and Scalp Intensive Therapy ($14; eccobella.com) infuses hair with essential oils of jojoba and green tea to help relieve itching and flaking and leave hair glossy.

Short-on-time alternative Massage your head--at home, at work or before you venture into a jampacked mall--with The Tingler ($20). It's a copper-wire head massager that literally tickles your scalp into relaxation. In need of a juiced-up version? There's now a motorized Tingler called The Sqwiggler ($30; both from 800-978-8765).

4. Boost that I-love-the-holidays glow. It's hard to feel jolly when you look like something the cat dragged in. Dull skin emphasizes lines and wrinkles and makes you look tired. But when there's no time or money for a professional peel or microdermabrasion, at-home masks or peels can help bring back that holiday glow. Ones to try: Bliss Spa Sleeping Peel Serum ($52) and/or Sleeping Peel Micro-Exfoliating Mask ($48; both from blissworld.com), a mix of amino acids that help unclog pores and smooth the dullest of skin. For exfoliating with a seasonal kick, try June Jacobs Perfect Pumpkin Enzyme Peeling Masque ($72; beautyexclusive.com), made with enzymes derived from the squash to remove dead skin cells without harsh scrubbing (and it has the irresistible scent of pumpkin pie).

Short-on-time alternative Fake radiant skin with a high-tech brightening formula. Dermalogica Day Bright SPF 15 ($45; dermalogica.com) delivers a blend of botanical brighteners, including licorice, rice bran and mulberry mixed with optical light diffusers that make skin look luminous. Joey New York Way To Glow ($35; sephora.com) is a subtle, shimmery cream-to-powder formula that instantly minimizes large pores, lines and dark spots. Want to glisten down to your toes? Aloette Sheer Stockings ($25; aloette.com) gives legs an almost airbrushed look (and it won't rub off on your clothes either).

RELATED ARTICLE: 5 holiday stress-busters

"The holidays bring out the perfectionist in all of us," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., author of Self-Nurture (Penguin, 2001). "We want everything to be perfect--either because our holidays were perfect as kids and we want to re-create that, or because they weren't and we want it to be different now." To avoid stress overload, Domar offers these tips:

* Make a list of everything you did for the holidays last year--and analyze what you can cut out. "If you hate baking cookies, you don't have to continue the tradition just because your mom did it," Domar advises. Lessen the stress by going the slice-and-bake route or decorating pre-made sugar cookies. And remember, there's nothing wrong with a gift of store-bought gourmet cookies. (Editor's pick: Our all-time favorite gourmet cookies are by the Ruby et Violette bakery in New York City, $24-$100; rubyetviolette.com; they ship nationwide.)

* Give up the idea of finding a unique gift for each person on your list. Instead, buy several of the same fantastic item (a picture frame, coasters, wine) and you're halfway home.

* When you're bombarded with party invites, "Thank you, but we can't make it" is a perfectly acceptable reply. Learning to say no will take a load off your to-do or to-go list.

* Got three potluck dinners in one weekend? Make a triple batch of your signature dish--or order a pre-made platter from your favorite restaurant or deli. Presumably, you're being invited for your company, not your artichoke dip.

* Continue or increase your exercise. "When women get busy, they tend to exercise less and eat more, both of which lead not only to weight gain but also to feeling bad about themselves, and that increases stress," Domar explains. "Even if it means walking around the block 10 times, get out and do something."

RELATED ARTICLE: gifts of well-being

You've been a good girl all year. Why not stuff your own stocking with a spa gift certificate? Here, some of the best de-stressing treatments across the country.

If your feet are beat, try ... the Mint Soak and Foot Reflexology at Birdwing Spa in Litchfield, Minn. ($40 for 30 minutes; birdwingspa.com): An effervescent hot soak of rosemary and mint revitalizes tired tootsies. It's followed by an invigorating leg massage and reflexology session.

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