Many people are so rushed, so frantic, so crazy that they crowd out all the stillness, the magic and calmness that Christmas has to offer. In the natural world, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, the depth of December is dominated by calm and stillness. Water freezes, animals hibernate and trees rest. The world slows and retreats. In a colossal example of being completely and utterly out of sync with nature, humans crank things up to a high pitch frenzy – culminating in 270 to do lists, mayhem at post offices, supermarket fights over brussels sprouts, queues of traffic down slip roads and mountains of debt. All of the crazy is then ‘medicated’ with too much wine and too much food. A few years ago in Bath, England I overheard a woman who could not have looked more traumatised if she had just escaped from a burning building, telling a friend at fever pitch that a fight had broken out in the post office. People are fighting whilst trying to send some talc up to their nan in Shetland? How crazy do you want it? None of this needs to happen and this guide shows you how to step away from the madness and get the rest, flow, ease and magic we all need over the holiday season.
1. Get Equipped
Now is the time to make sure you have separate scissors for paper and ribbon, tape and a tape dispenser. A house without a tape dispenser is like a house without enough scissors or pegs – a telltale sign of lack of self provision. Remember the Universe wants you to grow up and rows of strips of tape taking the veneer off the coffee table is a life downgrade. This is an easy win. Try Magic Tape (staples.co.uk). I have several dispensers in various locations and if they are prone to go walkies in your house – label them “Mum’s Desk”, “Dad’s Den”, “Study” etc. If you find them, you know where they belong. If you have a house full of people, colour code scissors differently for each person. You will soon see who the scissor culprit is.
2. Create a signature wrap
This can be anything you want – brown paper with twine and a piece of holly or a tartan ribbon for example, but think about it now and order the supplies. Plenty of them – it’s always better to have too much than to run out. As this is your signature wrap, you can use it again next year.
3. Stop the guessing game – end gift stress forever
Guessing what people want for Christmas is exhausting. If you get it wrong, you risk draining yourself and spending money just to contribute to someone else’s clutter problem. MySwag allows you to compile wish lists from any website for you personally or your family and share them with friends and relatives. That way, you can direct people to what you really want and need, saving both their time and hard earned money. You can also rate items as to how much you want them. Similarly, now is the time to request wish lists for your family and friends so you can take the stress out of gift buying for them – see www.mysw.ag or search online for ‘my swag wish list.’
4. Wrap and tag as you go
So many people underestimate how long wrapping takes. If you are up to your ears on Christmas Eve (you know who you are) I urge you to wrap as you go (that’s in the Martha Stewart sense, not the P.Diddy sense, by the way.) Christmas Eve is for chilled champagne and delicious anticipation. It is most certainly not the time to morph into an unpaid stressed elf. You will be very pleased you have done your wrapping come Christmas Eve.
End of November
I always spend a few gentle afternoon hours making chutney, (if I have not had a tree of plums to use up from the garden, in which case it was done in September). Homemade chutney is so easy but incredibly soulful – just put all the ingredients in a pan and wait for it to reduce then pot it up into sparkling jars. It is perfect with all your cold cuts after Christmas and a true home upgrade.
The last Sunday in November is ‘Stir-up’ Sunday and is the perfect time to make your Christmas cake, pudding and mincemeat. If you have children, they will remember this for years. The smells of baking and cinnamon wafting throughout the house, the soul and warmth of it all will form indelible happy memories. All these are very easy to make and are head and shoulders above their shop bought counterparts. I use Delia Smith’s versions of them all. Good enough for Delia, good enough for me.
Do not start huge decorating projects in November. They too often overrun. I have seen people laying tiles in the WC on Christmas Eve – I repeat, Christmas Eve is for champagne not to be wedged in the loo with a bucket of grout between the U-bend and a hairy builder.
1. Order your goose or turkey and ham if you are having one.
2. Do you have the right tins to make bread and the cheese terrine? If not, buy them.
3. If you are cooking your Christmas lunch, book a restaurant or pub for dinner on 23rd December. If you have children, arrange child cover for this night. If you do this at the beginning of December you are more likely to get someone. Don’t have anyone unreliable as this is a non negotiable.
4. Book in hair and nail appointments for Christmas Eve morning.
5. Make sausage rolls (plus veggie version if having) and freeze.
6. Make bread and freeze. I don’t eat bread as a rule and have a bit at Christmas so it has to be good.
7. Consider advertising for a Christmas Helper. Someone, somewhere is going to be over the moon decorating your tree whilst you have a pedicure and come home to put the finishing touches on (i.e. the two last baubles).
If you have an artificial tree, consider a pre-lit one. They save the most enormous amount of time, not to mention hoovering. Pre–lit mantle wreaths are also another great idea. They look very realistic and have the added benefit that you won’t be picking pine needles from your cocktail snacks all December.
Real trees, I know, are gorgeous and smell divine. Make sure you put water in the base stand so that you don’t have to employ a full time vacuum assistant. I find a handheld Dyson hoover indispensable for this job (as well as for many others).
Create a tree ritual – once mine is decorated, I dim the lights, have some mulled wine and play Frank Sinatra Christmas tunes. The magic begins now.
When I see these tipped, unlovingly into one big cardboard box my heart sinks. There is no grace in that and it is not how you treat treasures. I will be covering Christmas decoration storage online in the New Year. When you have my system in place, decorating your tree will be a breeze and putting everything away will be lightening quick. I can get three Christmas trees up in the time it takes someone else to find the torch for the attic.
GOOSE V TURKEY
The American tradition of turkey somehow took over from our British tradition of goose but that trend has now reversed with more households having goose than turkey. If you want ease and flavour at Christmas, goose is the way to go.
- unlike turkey you can’t dry it out;
- you get the best roast potatoes ever;
- you won’t end up eating turkey for two weeks afterwards;
- it’s a more flavoursome meat; and
- it’s a better accompaniment to red cabbage.
You can order your goose from a local butchers to be collected on 22/23 December.
Christmases are like heartbeats. You are allocated a finite amount in life. Too many people spend Christmas with people they don’t want to be with, in places they don’t want to stay in, having driven miles to get there. Am I right or am I right? Having ungrateful or moody people around you on Christmas Day is awful. Remember guilt is a choice and I see too many people’s days ruined because they spend it with the wrong people. They need rest and peace, but instead have to deal with traffic and tension.
I have lived with three Zen masters. All cats. You don’t have to teach a cat how to relax, they teach us.
Catering for sixteen people at lunch is very, very hard work. Do you really want that? Make sure you do before you draw up your guest list, as whilst people are scoffing your peanuts you’ll be in the kitchen wrestling with the bacofoil and a half tonne turkey and juggling 20 side dishes on too small a hob. Somebody will come with a glass of something for the cook, the contents of which will be gone quicker than last month’s salary and then the chances of now controlling the chaos with faculties out of play are zero. Hello dry turkey. Hello splashed fat on nice dress.
Run into Christmas
One week before
1. Make hazelnut butter.
2. Make cranberry sauce if having.
3. Make cheese terrine (see recipe).
4. Roast tomatoes.
By 15th December latest – ship all the presents you need to. Gone, out of your hair. My number one rule is not to be in a supermarket or shopping on Christmas Eve. My number two is that everything that can be prepped, is.
All vegetables and groceries are bought. Select the longest sell-by date on all items.
This day is the secret to a flowing Christmas. Here is where you create the flow for Christmas Day itself. My idea of hell on earth is standing in a dressing gown peeling spuds at lunchtime on Christmas Day. What an appalling waste of such a special day. People underestimate how long everything takes when you put it all together. By doing everything ahead of time you maximise the flow, magic and enjoyment on the day. Even if you are organised, there is still plenty to do.
Collect goose or turkey in a relaxed, jolly way – the opposite of the harrowed post office mother in Bath. Play carols in the car. Stop for coffee. Relax, knowing everything is in hand.
Listen to carols and
1. Make giblet stock for gravy – the easiest way to do this (or any other stock) is to put the giblets, a quartered onion with skin on, a carrot split lengthways, 10 peppercorns, a bayleaf and two celery stalks with leaves on in a slow cooker. Cover with filtered water and place on low for the afternoon and forget about it. No topping up or adjusting the heat required.
2. Make spiced cabbage (see Issue 3) in a casserole dish – this tastes better when it has had a couple of days for the flavours to develop.
3. Peel and parboil the potatoes. Fluff them up and leave to go cold. Store in Tupperware.
4. Prep sprouts, remove outer leaves and make an x incision with a knife in the bottom. Store in fridge or cool place.
5. If you have not already, make hazelnut, garlic, lemon butter (see Issue 3).
6. Make goose stuffing (see Issue 3) or mincemeat for turkey.
7. If you are having turkey, make the bread sauce now.
8. Leave cabbage in casserole dish.
9. At the end of the afternoon take bread out of freezer for Christmas Eve buffet.
10. Prepare simple meal for kids if you have them.
11. Shower and relax.
This is why you have scheduled in the restaurant. You have been cooking all day. You can clear up and not think about cooking, shopping or cleaning again this evening. It is a way of hardwiring some balance and relaxation into the Christmas run in. It forces you to kick back.
Start to relax and enjoy. Get your hair or nails done. Have coffee.
I arrange a buffet for 2.30 when the day is starting to shorten which everyone just loves.
24th Food Prep (15 mins)
1. Make a winter coleslaw (see recipe).
2. Toss a crisp green salad.
3. Brush sausage rolls with egg and cook from frozen.
4. Put cheese terrine on serving plate.
5. Warm bread in oven.
6. Put the ham on stand if having.
7. Put out small dishes of homemade chutney, pickled onions and your own ‘sun dried’ tomatoes.
A great wine choice is a delicious, savoury Gewurztraminer or Pinot Gris from Alsace, “Grand Cru” if you can stretch to it.
24th ROOM PREP
1. Light fire.
2. Light candles.
3. Put music on.
4. Lay buffet table with cutlery, glasses, napkins and plates.
Christmas Eve Evening
A beautiful Christmas Eve supper sounds fabulous but unless you can have it catered for, I would skip it.
The room should be lowly lit, magic and twinkly with tree, candles and the fire glowing. I lay out any leftovers from the afternoon buffet and augment it with smoked salmon and king prawns with aïoli and a bottle of cold vintage champagne. A sparkly dress and your other half or a good friend is all you need for a perfect evening.
Before bed – I lay the Christmas Breakfast table and make sure there is a coffee tray in the living room set up for a mid present opening re-fuel and bin bags for the wrapping paper.
If you can’t make an effort to dress well today, you may as well give up now. I can’t understand why people go to an enormous effort for Christmas and then dress like a tramp or worse still, turn up to someone else’s house dressed like a tramp. It’s too depressing. Anyone in jeans and dirty shoes in my house can expect no lunch.
Christmas Lunch Tips
I don’t serve lunch at 1pm – personally, I think it’s too early for such a feast and I can’t face raw poultry at 8 a.m. I aim to have it around 3 – 3.30 pm as it looks more magical with the light at that time of day and there is no need for any supper afterwards. We linger at the table until at least 5 or 6 pm.
I don’t bother with a starter. Here’s why. First, if you have had champagne and canapés you won’t need it. Secondly, there are lots of side dishes to get onto the table hot which you can put on the table and then invite guests to sit, so much easier than clearing a starter. Thirdly, who ever goes hungry at Christmas? You don’t need it, it’s better to be hungry and ready for the main attraction.
Christmas Day timetable
- Remove goose from fridge and bring to room temperature.
- I have Hemsley and Hemsley blueberry pancakes with cashew cream.
- Put Christmas pudding on to steam.
- Lots of present opening with coffee and carols.
- Pre-heat oven. Season goose if you have not already.
- Put on a rack over roasting dish in the oven.
- Drain off goose fat. Reserve for potatoes. Go for walk.
- Come back from walk.
- Drain off fat. Put plates, gravy boat and serving dishes in warmer. Lay table. Remember everything now so you are not in and out when the food is on the table.
- Champagne and Canapés. More presents. Yay.
- Roast Potatoes. Already peeled and parboiled you just toss them in. Make gravy.
- Put cabbage in oven or warm gently on hob.
- The Queen
- Remove Goose and allow to rest in warm place.
- Final thing. Steam sprouts for 7 minutes. Watch them like a hawk. Do not overcook. Cut discs of butter and toss with flavoured butter in a serving dish.
- Decant cabbage into serving dish. Decant potatoes and scatter with seasalt. Put gravy into warmed boat. Carry through to table. Great job!