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 In recent years the Norway spruce has been superceded by the bushier Nordmann Fir, which has non-drop needles, so clearly the spruce is preferable as it smacks of traditional values and an army of domestic staff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.
Holiday Party Planning > At this time of year, your social calendar can begin to look like a railway timetable. Smart planning is the key to success and survival. Get ready for all your home entertaining early and stock up on plenty of good cheer for the new year.
Setting the table > Whether you’re hosting an elegant sit-down dinner or a casual buffet, find everything you need to set off your festive feast. Do not forget to renew your flatware glass and tableware, to buy your gourmet food from your specialist and to buy some new and elegant table linens.
Stock the bar > Throwing a swank cocktail party? Dig out the punch bowl, order some fine wines and make sure you have all the essential bar tools on hand. Remember to check your stock on bar glassware, cocktail accessories, wine accessories and certainly to order bar supplies from your wine shop, have a shopping list handy where you written down your required supplies of wine, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, etc.
Host and hostess gifts > When it’s your turn to be the guest, make sure you’ve got a little something for your hosts. Smart revelers keep a few gifts on hand. Such as gifts for her and for him. Some ideas to help you are: gourmet gifts, wine gift baskets.
Get in the spirit > Holiday music and movies can help you get in the mood for celebrating the season. Add something new to your collection this year. Think what you like, decide on your budget and prepare your final list and do it! Buy them! Books, decorations, movies and music cd’s and dvd’s.
More Ways to Shop and Party Planning > Are you looking for a new digital camera or a home-entertainment system? Then read the Editor’s Picks of your fave magazine, newspaper or watch TV! Don’t forget about buying some new Christmas décor, to send out, on time, your party invitations, do not forget to add an RSVP telephone and contact details. Plan ahead all your wine shop party supplies and gift wrap too.
And a final piece of advice: Planning, planning, planning is the only way leading you to complete success and enjoying a great time on Christmas!
Today, you have exactly four weeks until Christmas Eve. That should be plenty of time to make the season bright, if you plan ahead and do a little bit each week.
Today, November 26 >
Make a plan: Take out a calendar, a notebook and a pen to plan out the whole holiday season.
Gifts: Figure out your budget and list everyone in your life. Determine who gets a card and who merits a gift, then brainstorm a few ideas.
Decorating: Decide when you want to put up the tree and schedule a time the whole family can help.
Events: Gather all your invitations and decide which events you’ll attend. Put them on your calendar and send regrets for the others. It’s OK to say no to a few; it’s a busy month.
November 27 to December 3 >
Gifts: Buy the biggest gifts first, such as for your spouse, kids and close family. That way, you won’t blow your budget buying small gifts for others. If you don’t know what they want, ask them for ideas. Try to buy the most significant or most expensive gifts this week, or at least have a good idea of what you will buy.
Cleaning: Spend extra time this week getting your house clean and organized for the season. Dust all of the surfaces you will decorate, vacuum and deep-clean your bathrooms for guests.
Oh, Christmas Tree: Pull your decorations out of storage a few days before you plan to decorate. The next day, check and replace your lights, if needed. On the big day, ride out with the whole family to pick the perfect Christmas tree and play Christmas carols while you decorate. Save “Oh, Tannenbaum” for the end, so you can sit with some hot cocoa and serenade your pretty pine.
December 4 to 10 >
Gifts: Now that you have your decorations up, buy wrapping paper and ribbons that will complement them. Buy more than you think you will need, better to have some left over than fight the crowds for more. Start shopping for smaller gifts, such as for friends, teachers and co-workers.
Cards: If you haven’t bought cards yet, stock up and buy postage early this week. Then write about 10 cards each night. If you have more than 70 people on your list, consider writing a holiday newsletter and sending it to everyone. But don’t forget to spell-check.
Clothes: Send your favorite holiday wear to the cleaner to make sure it’s ready when parties roll around. If your wardrobe needs some extra cheer, buy a sparkly sweater, some new shoes or a festive new tie.
December 11 to 17 >
Shopping: This isn’t exactly the last minute, but go ahead and act like it is, so next week will be more fun. If you still can’t decide on some gifts visit a few locally owned boutiques in town, such as those in downtown. You’ll find some unique gifts that aren’t sold in the big-box stores.
Start a detailed grocery list for a big trip next week. Put it up on your refrigerator and add to it as you think of things.
Kids: Give the kids a small budget and take them shopping for gifts for you and other family members. Even better, give them a few art supplies and have them make gifts, themselves. Buy holiday-themed books for them to begin reading or for you to read to them.
Wrapping it up: Make sure you have tape and scissors and set aside an afternoon to do all your wrapping at once. Put the gifts under the tree so your family can ooh and ahh before the big day.
December 18 to 24 >
Food: Clean out your fridge and finish your grocery list, then go shopping early in the morning or late at night, to avoid the crowds. Don’t forget to buy extra storage containers, you will need them when you bake and cook a few things ahead and put them in the freezer.
Stocking stuffers: If you’re already done with your gifts, make one last trip to get a few stocking stuffers, and savor the feeling of being more organized than everyone else.
Festivities: Pick up your party dress and get ready to kick up your heels with friends and family. Find at least one holiday-themed event to go to, such as a party, a musical or even a silly movie.
Christmas Day, December 25 >
Wake up early and watch the kids open their presents. Make sure to take some time to play with your own presents and maybe take a nap, you’ve earned it! before you do the final cooking for the holiday meal.
The endless socialising which is an intrinsic part of Christmas is one of the best parts of the festive season, but organising something to suit everyone can be difficult. A little forward planning can reveal a superb range of venues catering for every imaginable celebration, family get-togethers or friends’ reunions.
There is often so much socialising going on at work that we leave important family arrangements till last – because everyone assumes that family and closest friends will always be there.
This year, it’s time to put those closest to you at the top of your list, and decide how you’re going to enjoy your Christmas get-together as never before. Think about who will be involved, and how you can make sure the venue and event are fun for everyone.
Maybe this is the perfect time to forget about cooking Christmas dinner, and revel in someone else doing the work – and the dishes – by taking your family out for the meal. If nothing else, it will put you in the good books of whoever is normally responsible for getting this feast on the table.
NZ House & Garden’s festive season spectacular > Celebrate the Christmas spirit with NZ House & Garden’s bumper December issue, the complete guide to creating the perfect Christmas for family and friends this year.
“This special issue is filled with ideas for creating a beautiful Christmas for family and friends this year. Gifts, decorations, wrapping, and table settings, everything we need to make the day a special one,” says Michal McKay, editorial director.
Stylist Sandra Kaminiski shares her plan for a festive Christmas party for readers to draw inspiration from, including ideas for decorations to set the scene and a delicious menu that will impress. The issue also includes a special feature on Christmas gifts with suggestions for the perfect present, as well as beautiful ideas for gift wrapping.
“Christmas is the time of giving and this issue has plenty of inspiration for all. For a great gift idea that will last the whole year why not give a subscription to NZ House & Garden? Readers can simply visit www.mags4gifts.co.nz to place an order,” says Michal.
This issue has plenty of ideas for a Christmas dinner setting that will make the table come alive for family and friends as they share in the festivities, as well as picks for top wines for a seasonal toast. And Peter Gordon suggests a white Christmas dinner menu that can be prepared a day ahead, so that the chef might share in the celebrations too.
The new issue of NZ House & Garden magazine is on sale from Monday 20 November and retails for $8.90.
Visit www.nzhouseandgarden.co.nz for inspiration and information 24/7.
During the bustling weeks ahead, save yourself some time and trouble by using these tips to manage all the tasks that accompany the holidays. By planning ahead and working efficiently, you’ll be able to juggle the season’s cooking, cleaning, decorating, entertaining and giving.
•Buy baking staples: Avoid last-minute trips to the store by purchasing essential baking ingredients early. Take inventory of what you already have in the kitchen, and then stock up on basics such as butter, flour, granulated and brown sugars, baking powder and vanilla extract.
•Organize recipes: Photocopy or print out recipes you plan to make, and arrange them in one binder. That way you won’t have to crowd your countertops with several cookbooks at once. Plus, the pages can double as shopping lists.
•Have multiples: Measuring cups and spoons are indispensable for holiday cooking and baking. Buy extras of these inexpensive tools, and you’ll always have a clean set to use.
•Master a basic cookie dough: Once you have a simple cookie dough down pat, mix up the recipe each holiday by changing the add-ins, using such ingredients as zest, dried fruit, spices, or white chocolate and macadamia nuts.
•Keep instant hors d’oeuvres: Stay prepared for drop-in guests by refrigerating a selection of cheeses that you can serve as hors d’oeuvres. Aged Gouda, goat cheese, blue cheese and hard sheep’s-milk cheeses store well. Refrigerate them, wrapped in waxed paper and in a plastic bag, for up to one month, blue should be wrapped in aluminum foil. Olives, chutneys and nuts are other small bites that also keep well.
•Hang a versatile wreath: A pine-cone wreath, available from florists, can make a smooth transition from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Spruce up the decoration with a ribbon in gold or silver, festive shades suited to any holiday.
•Pick potted plants: Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and poinsettias will add cheer to any room. Plus, the attractive plants make excellent gifts for guests.
•Shop for a tree online: You can browse for a Christmas tree on the Web and arrange to have one delivered to your door. For farm listings, visit the National Christmas Tree Association’s Web site www.realchristmastree.org
•Create a long-lasting display: Dress up your home with items that will shine from November to January. Pillar candles, which last longer than tapers, and unshelled nuts spray-painted gold add sparkle.
•Keep a notebook: Jot down gift ideas as you think of them. Make a list of people you need to shop for, and note their sizes, favorite colors and hobbies to inspire you and keep you focused.
•Store neutral wrapping paper: Stock up on patternless paper and matching ribbon that work year-round.
•Buy crowd-pleasers: All-purpose gifts, such as jars of jam or bottles of wine or high-quality olive oil, are sure to please anyone. Soaps and lotions also work well. Wrap the items ahead of time so they’re ready in case you need a last-minute gift.
•Have a plan: Draw up a checklist of the cleaning that needs to be done before a family visit or large get-together. This may include organizing the entryway closet, cleaning out the garage or polishing furniture. To ensure you finish in time, start with the largest project on a weekend, and then tackle one or two more on the following weekends.
•Accept help: If a guest offers to pitch in with the post-dinner cleanup, let her. This can even be a nice opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation in the midst of a busy party.
•Minimize tree cleanup: Before you bring home a Christmas tree, ask the retailer to shake it to remove loose needles and other debris. To ensure a swift and tidy removal, lay a tree-disposal sack, available at home-supply stores, under your tree’s skirt. The large plastic bag can be pulled over the tree and tied so falling needles and sweeping are kept to a minimum.
•Have a buffet: This style of entertaining doesn’t require assigned seating or fancy table settings. Many of the dishes can even be made and set out ahead of time.
•Plan a get-together with a goal: Invite friends over to compose holiday cards or wrap small presents. Everyone will be able to socialize and cross off an item on her to-do list at the same time.
Good thing I love the holidays. But even if you love the holidays as much as I do, we all know how much extra work Christmas entails. There are hundreds of celebrations, traditions and obligations during the holiday season and to pull it all off you will need sharp organizational skills.
November is the perfect time to pick up a calendar and create your own holiday planner. I know for myself I can’t do everything nor do I want to, but there are certain traditions and events that are “a must”. I start by writing those “must-dos” on the calendar in red ink. Any other possible events are written in blue ink, but I certainly don’t sweat it if every event or task isn’t attended or completed.
However, many of the tasks and events I don’t want to miss can sure benefit from an early start. Here is a reminder of some of the things that you may also have on your list and may be helpful to start early. Now is the time to: