Just how posh is your Christmas?
Do you go for a Norway spruce or Homebase artificial? Elizabethan-style cinammon stick bundles, or drifts of tinsel? Is the focus of your day the Queen’s Speech, or the first family row? In short, how posh is your Christmas?
It makes no difference whether you’re frantically flinging money at the problem on www.needapresent.com or popping up to town to collect a few crucial comestibles from Fortnum & Mason. As we all hurtle inexorably towards December 25 in a giddy rush of consumerism, there is one shared aim: The Perfect Christmas.
Unfortunately, most people’s interpretations of a perfect day are wildly different from each other. Cast your mind back to the very first time you spent the festive season at someone else’s house and relive, if you can, the horror. To paraphrase L P Hartley, it’s not just the past that’s a foreign country, but the shuddering vulgarity of Other People’s Christmas customs.
Sauce for the goose is most definitely not sauce for the organic bronze turkey and one man’s tradition (no gift opening until after lunch) is another woman’s torture (up at dawn, chocolate money for breakfast).
We’re all keenly aware that Christmas is, of course, a time of peace to all men. But it’s also the time we open our doors to competitive friends, judgmental neighbours and the sort of distant family whom we secretly dislike but are desperate to impress.
So how to celebrate the festive season with class? How can you ensure that your guests will marvel at your impeccable taste rather than snicker into their mulled chianti? It’s not too late to take action, so read our guide to the etiquette of an upper crust Christmas.
The Tree > Natural or artificial?
Natural is always vastly superior. In recent years the Norway spruce has been superceded by the bushier Nordmann Fir, which has non-drop needles, so clearly the spruce is preferable as it smacks of traditional values and an army of domestic staff to do the vacuuming. It should, of course, come from one’s own estate.
Having said that, problems in Denmark mean that imported Nordmann Firs are likely to be in short supply, therefore urban alpha couples MUST obtain one at whatever cost.
A bare tree may be hung with orange and clove pomanders, festooned with ribbons and bedecked with real candles only if your home is pre-Restoration. Tinsel is unpardonable. Fashionistas who slavishly bought must-have black artificial trees last year should not, on any account, re-use them as they may be shot on sight by the style police.
The Decorations > Colour co-ordinated or random?
Notorious snob and Tory MP Alan Clark once dismissively described Michael Heseltine as the sort of non-U type who had to buy his own furniture.
So it is with decorations, which ideally should be inherited, characterfully mismatched and embellished with the sort of highly poisonous lead paint that is now outlawed in the EU. You may, however, pick up one or two unusual baubles abroad every year as this enables you to display how well-travelled you are.
Themed trees are woefully nouveau, unless the hosts are gay, although it is permissable for heterosexuals to garland the mantelpiece with holly and ivy, so long as it has been collected in the course of a hearty country walk, rather that bought.
A wreath (handcrafted by the WI) on the front door is marvellously posh, as it signals you live in the sort of area where no-one’s likely to pilfer it. Other outdoor decorations are common. Mistletoe is tacky unless it’s in generous abundance. All fairylights must be white.
The Cards > Second or first class?
Should have been sent out in early December by second-class post as this implies both superior organisation and upper-class indigence.
Personalised cards featuring a smiling family shot do have a certain patrician charm but be careful who you send them to – just remember the sort of witheringly personal comments that are made about the Blairs’ annual Christmas portrait.
Obscure and eccentrically British animal charity cards – the Rare Breeds Association, the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust, the Nightjar Preservation Society – are ideal but, failing that, people charities will do. For wider acquaintances, Tesco cards are acceptable, cards from Next are not.
The Church Service > Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?
High midnight mass is the natural choice of the uberposh but, failing that, it’s church on December 25th, especially if you are a royal or have been given a new Maxmara coat.
Chrismas Eve worship does have its social advantages however, as it provides an opportunity to invite other members of the congregation back for a drink. This implies well-bred insouciance about the hellish prospect of rising at 4am to haul the turkey into the Aga, plus how else will they find out that you make your own mince pies?
The Presents > Before or after lunch?
When to open presents is a highly contentious issue. Received wisdom has it that it’s posher to refrain until after lunch, which it undoubtedly is.
Having said that, true aristos have no concept of delayed gratification – think the Marquess of Bath or Prince Charles in a petulant tizz – so strictly speaking, ripping them open in a frenzy at dawn is, though somewhat nursery in style, also correct form.
Stockings should be threadbare ancient family heirlooms with a diverting story as to their provenance (“I bought it in Paperchase” doesn’t quite make the grade). A satsuma in the toe remains mandatory.
The Crackers > Cheap tat or expensive fripperies?
Upmarket crackers are, in fact, downmarket and the crass preserve of City boys with more money than breeding.
Crackers containing “premium novelties” such as mother-of-pearl runcible spoons or silver-plated whistling keyrings smack of corporate functions and fly in the spirit of good old-fashioned fiddly metal puzzles and tiny plastic commando figures with crumpled parachutes, the like of which have made Britain great.
The Christmas Meal > Lunch or dinner?
The ten-bird roast that includes a hummingbird inside a cattle egret inside a dodo is, mercifully, so last year.
Goose is still the gold standard but, failing that, an organic turkey, preferably named and personally chosen from a field in Wales sometime in September. Brandy butter is the accompaniment of choice for the plum pudding, even though nobody likes it.
Lunch should be eaten at lunchtime – certainly no later than 1.30pm. However, it may also be comically late, depending on how bohemian you wish to appear and providing there’s an amusingly disastrous anecdote attached, eg. the gundogs ate the trimmings.
The Guests > Active participants or bemused bystanders?
In posh homes, first-time guests, particularly in-laws, are briefed by a tame family member about the day ahead.
Outsiders would do well to remember that they are the festive equivalent of embedded journalists in hostile terrain and must at all times strive to blend in, i.e. meekly wear the silly party hats and take part in interminable games of charades (a very PLU activity).
They must never question the established traditions of the house and on no account should they commit the classic solecism of enquiring about the acronym FHB.
It stands for Family Hold Back and means that the panic-stricken hostess has realised there’s not enough lunch to go round, which is why taciturn teenage sons may suddenly be observed sulkily hurling roast potatoes back into the serving dish.
The Queen’s Speech > To watch or not to watch?
After years in the broadcasting wilderness, The Queen’s Speech has been rehabilitated and is, once again, a treasured institution and the highlight of the day.
She may be embracing Estuary English vowels, but her aitches remain reassuringly robust. The BBC film must be enjoyed en famille in the sitting room, symbolising Dickensian togetherness, even if you do all hate each other, as it affords the opportunity for elderly members to slip into a refreshing hyperglycaemic coma after lunch.
Watching the repeat Christmas edition of Only Fools and Horses, even by mistake, is unforgiveable.
The Drinks > Pre-prandial sherry or post-prandial Bailey’s?
Sherry is no longer ironic and may be safely drunk outside the Home Counties without fear of derision but only if served in authentic catavinos sherry glasses rather than Abigail’s Party Waterford crystal.
Breakfast buck’s fizz remains popular but it must be made with real champagne and proper orange juice with the irritating floating debris. Once it has been established that you have got Veuve Clicquot in the house, feel free to serve up Cava for the rest of the day, as blue-blooded types are notoriously parsimonious.
Bailey’s Irish Cream is chavvy, cointreau is not. Getting quietly slaughtered by mid-afternoon is classless.