What evokes Christmas for you? For me, it’s the smell of mince pies and tangerines and the twinkle of fairy lights. It’s the opening bars of ‘Fairytale of New York’ and the tears that come all too quickly whenever I hear children singing carols. It’s being at my parents’ house with all my family, which is how I have spent every single Christmas of my life.
When my girls were tiny we would do the long drive from the South back up to the North of England, listening to Christmas songs (‘Driving Home for Christmas’ was of course a fave), eating mince pies, making a mess of the car and desperately hoping they would fall asleep in the car. They never did.
Then it was the long flight from Bangkok to Manchester when we reminisced about how we thought the drive in the UK had been a long journey. Hahaha. When I say ‘we’ I mean me, as I usually did this journey solo. I dreamed of mince pies, desperately hoping the girls would fall asleep on the plane. They rarely did.
Next came the journey from Germany to the UK. Which would have been a cakewalk (mince pie walk?) if we’d flown. But by then we had a dog…so we drove. It took us longer than it had taken to get back from Bangkok. There are only so many times you can listen to Chris Rea before you start to scream ‘I’m never driving home for Christmas again! We should have flown!’ And no, no-one slept on the journey. Except the dog.
And now we are in France. A skip across the channel (and then a slog up the M6) from home.
But this year, the family are coming to us! For the first time ever we will be spending Christmas in our own home. No packing up cases, worrying about fitting in all the gifts. No airport check-ins, no ferry journeys. No sleeping on sofa beds and slogging around the country visiting people.
When I said my family are coming, I mean ALL my family. That means fifteen of us for Christmas Day. And Christmas Eve. And Boxing Day. In fact, fifteen of us for the whole week. All staying Chez Moi. Did I mention I have always been to my Mum’s for Christmas? I have never had to host before…so this is going to be a baptism of fire!
So, in an attempt to work through this, calm myself down and get organised, I have trawled the internet, read lots of cookbooks and interrogated my friends for survival tips. And I’m sharing them here for all of you who are hosting Christmas this year…the irony is not lost on me that, instead of actually DOING stuff to get ready I am THINKING about it and writing about it. Anyone else do this? I have thought so much about getting a turkey that I actually forgot that I hadn’t ordered one…
Make some room at the Inn for your Christmas guests
Most of us don’t have loads of spare room going spare. But you want your guests to be comfortable…not just for their sake but also because if they don’t sleep well, they won’t be much fun.
My kids already have trundle beds which are perfect for sleepovers and will mean their cousins can bed down comfortably.
I have invested in these blow up mattresses. We slept on one at a friend’s house and it was like sleeping in a real bed. It even comes with a little light and USB port… The downside is that they take up a fair bit of storage space.
Sofa beds are obviously a great option. We have an IKEA one which has lasted for years…to be honest I wouldn’t want to invest much more money as every time we move stuff gets damaged!
We will also have two babies staying with us. I put a shout out on our school Facebook site and two people have kindly offered to lend me travels cots and high chairs; its always worth asking as many people go away over the holidays so don’t need this things.
And if you’re having to get extra beds…make sure you have enough bedding and towels. I stocked up on Hammam towels when we were in Turkey this summer; they’re great as they dry quickly and don’t take up much space.
Be clear on travel arrangements
Obvious but easy to overlook, especially if you have lots of people coming. Are you going to collect people from the airport or will they make their own way to you?
It is always lovely to pick up family and friends from their airport – seriously, I never have a dry eye in the arrivals hall, I always come over all “Love Actually.’ But this Christmas the pick ups will be outsourced either to my husband or Uber. Because I KNOW my house will be hectic, and I will be working til the last minute to get everything ready.
The main thing is everyone knows what they are doing…you don’t want people assuming they are getting picked up and then realising they are going to have to figure out the trains/ bus/ taxis.
My parents are driving to us and when I asked my Mum if they had a Sat Nav that worked in Europe her response was, ‘No, we won’t bother with that, I’ll just print out directions.’ (I’m on the other end of the phone basically doing the ‘Oh No’ emoji, the one with the with a hand pressed against a face) My Mum is the woman whose sense of direction is so bad she can’t even locate it. So I’m just hoping they will actually find out house before Christmas Eve… The good news is that data roaming charges in Europe are now the same as in the UK so she can use the map on her phone to get directions. If they can figure out how to use it…
Have a schedule
Even when people say they have no expectations and they are happy to do whatever and eat whatever…it’s not really true. You need some kind of plan otherwise you’re just going to get more and more stressed as everyone looks at you and asks what’s for breakfast, what’s the plan, what’s for dinner etc etc
I am going to figure out plan for what we will do each day, because then at least I’ll know how many meals we’ll need at home. As there are so many of us just popping out for lunch won’t be that easy unless we have made reservations (it’s hard enough sometimes just the four of us) so, while having a schedule goes against the grain for me I know it will make life easier. I just need to do it rather than think about it…
Get ahead with food
The more you can do in advance the better – yet another obvious statement, but it’s so true. My favourite thing to do in the run up to Christmas is to bake, so this year we have made and frozen our mince pies and gingerbread. We started making our own mince pies in Bangkok because we couldn’t buy them anywhere. Turns out they are super easy, as is making mincemeat.
In fact, that’s the thing all my recipes have in common – they are easy. I am no super chef and now is not the time to go all fancy with food. I have learned this the hard way…one New Year’s Eve I decided to make chicken pâté to take to a friend’s house. Chicken livers turned out to be hard to find (unlike here in France where innards are all over). Instead of switching to something easier I found myself up to my elbows trying to defrost bloody chicken livers – literally, so bloody – when I should have been getting my party dress on. It DID taste good but I couldn’t shake off the Texas Chainsaw massacre vibe…
So my recipes are a piece of cake and great to do with the kids as they are (fairly) foolproof. This fool is no longer going to be fiddling with offal when she should be sipping champagne.
The other thing that has been a big hit in our house (so much so I am currently making a triple batch) is Christmas Granola. Basically granola with cranberries and pecans and cinnamon, it is so delicious and a bit special, and it makes the whole house smell incredible when it’s cooking. And it’s easy!
Don’t forget the basic stuff
Toilet roll. Toothpaste. Batteries (because the kids are going to get toys that need them). Gin.
What’s the big meal?
I have just ordered a turkey from the butcher. I have been warned that it will be eye-wateringly expensive, but to be honest I am just happy to have been able to find one.
It can be hard to get hold of all the traditional ingredients for your Christmas meal when you aren’t at home. But I think you’ve got to make that part of the fun, and incorporate different things. There’s no point getting stressed about sprouts. We aren’t having Christmas cake this year and are replacing it with pecan pie…because we love it and it reminds us of our friends from the US. Not traditional, but it will become our tradition.
As my Mum keeps telling me, it’s not about the food being perfect – the big deal is not the meal, but sitting down to the table and being together. (I may need to remind everyone of this as we sit down to eat…)
Make it easy and take it easy
The holiday season can feel like a burden, especially for women. My Mum has always done all the shopping, cooking, card writing and gift wrapping. It was always a joke that my Dad would be as surprised as us when we unwrapped our gifts on Christmas morning.
There is pressure to have the perfect gifts for everyone, for our homes to be beautifully decorated, for the food to be delicious, for us to look great (hair done, nails done, and no mince pie bulge over the top of our jeans) and for everyone to have a special time making wonderful memories.
Well, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it? Add to this – for those of us with kids – all the school concerts, fairs, end of year parties and having to manage children who are totally wired and exhausted and no longer able to function properly (my daughter wept last night for forty minutes for no reason other than being so tired).
And there’s so many things to remember. To put little surprises in the advent calendar boxes (a rod for my own back and I have been rubbish at it this year. Raisins were an all time low…) and that Elf on the shelf – whose idea was that? Need to bake more cakes for the end of term party. Gifts and cards for the teachers. Send gifts to people we won’t be seeing. Think about writing Christmas cards and then don’t and then realise I’ve missed the cut off date. Think about doing a lovely e-card but don’t get round to it. Think about making lovely homemade gifts for people but remember I’m rubbish at making things. Other than mince pies.
Anyone else always have the INTENTION of being thoughtful and then the execution of the the thoughtfulness gets forgotten in the muddle of everything else? I wish you could some how just wrap up the thought itself and transfer it through the ether…But as that’s not possible this year I have bought a stash of chocolates because I know I will forget someone. I may give a box to the receptionist as an experiment to see whether it will make her any nicer to me in the new year…
So let’s accept that while the festive period can be wonderful it can also be TOO MUCH. Particularly when you are not spending it with your loved ones, for whatever reason. And, y’know, sometimes when you are spending a lot of time with your loved ones…it can also be tough. The emotional toll can be huge. The pressure we put on ourselves is huge. Build in some time to give yourself a break.
Don’t try and do everything yourself. Christmas is not about proving that you are the perfect hostess…and if you are stressed out, no-one is going to feel relaxed. (Is it obvious that this blog is basically just me giving myself a pep talk??!!)
Give out jobs to people. Ask for help. When people offer to lend a hand, accept it. If there are shortcuts to make it easier, take them. Learn from my example – put the frozen chicken livers down!!
Presence not Presents
A cliché but a good one. This is what it’s all about. Being present – for the people you love and for yourself. You are enough.
My recipe for feeling Christmassy
I am going to finish this blog where I started. Mince pies mean Christmas for me. And this recipe is not one that will stress you out…its so easy. And when you see how much butter goes in…you’ll know why they taste so good! Enjoy!!
Cranberry mincemeat (vegetarian)