What a blatant dissappointment. I struggled through over half of it, desperately scrabbling for something to relate to, before I gave up and switched channels. Perhaps it was an effort to stress things in order to make them funny, but it seemed that every time I felt a twinge of recognition at some situation, most of the interviewees would take the story to the Nth degree, shooting sisterhood in the foot by trying to label us all as pathetic over-hassled creatures bewailing our lot as the voluntary and total slaves of the rest of the family.
Here then, is my own personal take on a stress free Christmas.
Preparation - gifts
- Children have no right to tell you what they want and then expect it. They have a right to tell you what they hope for. If you can only get one decent thing on their wish list, mark that one as from you, and mark the rest as coming from Father Christmas. This has a double purpose as it also makes the relatives who send money very valuable. If your ten year old didnt get this year's 'must have' then a card with a fiver inside instantly changes from a boring dissappointment to collectors heaven, as each takes him or her one step further toward buying the hoped for item in the January sales.
- Its all right for pets to be delivered late on Christmas Eve - its a secret but Santa has to do it that way to stop them peeing & pooping all over the sleigh and chewing up the other stuff when he does the proper run.
- In our house Santa delivers stockings to the bedrooms, in which everything, even a satsuma, is individually wrapped, with lots of sellotape. No chocolate, yet. If the contents of the bedroom stocking offer some food, something to fiddle with, are not going to make your kids more hyperactive than they already are and are designed to be as awkward as possible to open then you stand a chance of making it to the living room first, possibly even dressed and caffeined up.
- Have a lock on the living room door. Children are amazingly good about having a proper breakfast, or going to wash their faces whilst you down your first coffee, if they know that compliance speeds the moment when they find out what else Santa brought. Have a grand opening, when you are awake and ready.
- Dont expect anything you remotely want as a gift, unless you give up on dropping hints and give your partner your own wish list, in print. If it contains more items than you could expect to get then the element of surprise remains. Make it your responsibility to liaise with each other's relatives on this. You can be totally specific about everything but jewellery.
- Do the pre-shopping phone calls. Ask people, or their partners, what sort of thing they might be hoping for. Partners are always a little vague if there isnt a list in that household but at least the idea of 'something arty-crafty' steers you away from the scarves. It also trains the men into keeping mental lists because if you start in early November you will find that males are more likely to put their minds to it for a relative who wants to know, than they are on their own behalf or for the sake of their beloved. Its a matter of form.
- Where did you get your desire for 'home made' this or that? If you got it from a telly programme or a magazine, forget it; mentally tear it up and throw it away. We children of the sixties and seventies were brought up on artificially coloured and flavoured everything, so one day of convenience treats isn't going to kill the new generation, is probably going to cost less than buying all the ingredients separately and will look and probably taste a whole lot better. If you want to be really unhealthy just keep a duster of caster sugar to one side. Homemade sugary treats are distinguishable by the burnt bits and the fact that the sugar on top is also all over the serving plate.
- If you got it from memories of Christmas baking with your own mother, then remember its a childhood memory and this is what you should consider passing on with one or at most two items offered on the Christmas table. The most lopsided cake or mince pie is accepted with coos and oohs if little Georgina (or preferably George, lets break some stereotyping here for the next generation) helped, or better still 'iced it all by him/herself'. Who cares if they get smuggled into pockets and then into the bin? Your child will either retain memories like yours, or will grow up loving to cook, in which case that’s half the hell of Christmas converted to a joy, for them.
- Get as many of the nibbles as possible from a pound shop or scoop and weigh. Who cares if the box turns out to contain 80% packaging; wedge it on the window ledge or side table and display it as a box and not with the contents tipped out on a plate. After a good Christmas dinner and too many sherries you'll be after the carbs to soak acid, not sugary sweets anyhow and if you're not, then none of your unfortunately invited guests will give a hoot that they have never come across the brand name before.
- Use generic turkey gravy granules, but make it up using the water off the inevitable sprouts, which is enough to make it taste home-made-ish.
- Never ever have people round for dinner on Christmas day if you can possibly avoid it - be the Boxing Day host instead, and turn cold turkey, egg and chips into a family tradition. 'The oven just isn't big enough' is a perfectly valid excuse that will hit a chord with everyone. Of course it does, otherwise they wouldn’t be looking to get invited somewhere in the first place. An even better one is ‘Come on Boxing Day, when we can get the kids lunches out of the way first’. You will be a much better hostess when there’s minimal work and you can join in. Of course people who find themselves unavoidably alone are different, provided there’s not some glaring flaw in their character that instantly explains the solitude. If someone is hell to live with on a wet Wednesday in June they are going to be even more of a trial at Christmas, even if the person happens to be your sibling.
- Buy a turkey crown. Let the bits you wouldn’t touch on your Christmas turkey be ready removed for the burger industry or whatever secondary income stream they use it for and make do with roasting only the white and easily carved meat. It comes out of the oven looking distinctly turkey shaped, for the benefit of the purists.
- Never carve at table. Let the children see the roast looking huge and glamorous because they are the only ones that will be impressed by it, then carve and serve in the kitchen, before the veggies come out. The best compliment you can give your dinner companions is a hot meal. I positively hate going to houses where the man shows off, sharpening the carving knife and slowly slicing the meat at table. It just means it'll be another half an hour before everyone has passed the spuds, gravy etc round and you can actually start eating. Oh yummy, a stone cold meal fit for the cat, thank you so very much.
- People have very strong feelings about stuffing; they either love it or hate it. Even if you do a fancy chestnut one, do it as balls or slices, so that it doesn’t seep into the other items on the plate if one person happens to think it tastes absolutely foul.
- Mashed swede is heaven sent. Do it an hour in advance so its not taking up a ring on the hob when things go crazy, and shove it in a glass bowl covered in cling film with a few pinholes. Make it buttery and moist (even adding a bit of kettle water during the mashing can make it look creamier), then shove it in the microwave for 3 or 4 minutes until its steaming. People either love it or find it completely tasteless, and if its tasteless to you, well then you wont mind scraping it off your turkey, will you, because it wont have upset the flavour. A modest blob of piping hot swede holds the heat for ages and is brilliant for making sure the plate and the meat stay warm to the table.
- Designer decorations are for those with no families. For everyone else I recommend my favourite style – colour-blind, a.k.a. ‘done for the children’. If its sparkly, shove it up, complete with balloons; crash, bang, done.
- Trees should not be indoors dying. If you love the smell of pine that much, then doubtless you constantly use pine air freshener and pine disinfectant. Clear off to the kitchen and sniff it. Otherwise buy the pure oil, or incense sticks. Get a good quality plastic tree that actually fits the living room, has room at the top for a star or fairy and a good solid base. If your hankering for a real tree stems from some sort of middle class one-upmanship where it is your social circle that has deemed it a ‘must have’ item, then turn the tables and play the conservation card, guaranteed to impress all your friends who keep muttering that they really should use the bicycle more often, really wish the recycling centre had better parking, etc.
Last hint – stop playing the game. Stop thinking the day is about anything outside of religion besides having a good time. If you love a real tree but also love to whinge all year about hoovering up the needles, love to produce home cooking but love to moan about being an unappreciated galley slave all day, then either simplify or shut up, you’re spoiling the party!