Countdown to Christmas

Yes, time flies, and yes, it’s here again – with just less than 5 weeks to go before the big day is here. As usual there is SO much to do and never enough time to get it all done.

I love Christmas – I seriously love it and all the mayhem and stress that it brings. I also like to think that I do it well. Mainly because I don’t think of Christmas just being that one day. It is the whole experience, pretty much from now, and I enjoy all the fuss even with all the conflicts it brings to our senses – tradition, religion, colour, glitter, tacky, over-the-top, exuberant, fun, loving, friends and family, smells, scents, cold, snow, ….. you get the gist.

It is a great time of the year to just relax, give thanks, and in a sort of “shed-it-all” in weird excess, get rid of the baggage of the year and move fresh into a beautiful New Year.

Yes, you can relax – mainly because you don’t have to do it all. You can instead make a careful plan and decide what it is you will do – and not feel guilty about what you did not get done in time, or what you choose not to do.

You do have a choice – here is my 12 point check-list to the Christmas Countdown – and I want to show you how you can cut the misery, enjoy the stress and make a real effort to have a great Christmas experience.

1. What are you doing for Christmas? 

Are you going away, or are you at home? Where you will be spending Christmas will make some of the points I have listed a bit irrelevant. Whatever your choice, make sure it was what you and your family want to do. It never ceases to amaze me how many people choose to spend Christmas with people/friends or family they KNOW they will not enjoy.

I think a lot of stress around Christmas comes because we are not honest with ourselves – I know there is a family duty often which you or your partner may dread. How can you reach a compromise? I always feel you have to be very disciplined about these things with a strong sense of duty to put up with stressful family Christmas visits. I just never do family Christmas’. Too unpleasant and it is my festive season and a time when I get to relax and chill. I have no guilty feelings about it at all. (Well OK – just a twinge!)

This year I am at home – with 2 guests who will be staying for a couple of weeks. My plans for New Year is less clear, and I cannot make my mind up about that. After Christmas I am planning on doing some writing, creating and designing – my time. I also want to see a panto…. not sure where yet.

2. Make a Planning Schedule and Work Backwards 

Today I have set out a simple plan on a single sheet of paper for the month of December, up an until the 6th January, when I know all the decorations have to come down. (A huge job for me as I put so many decorations up!)  So on my list is Wednesday 6th January – marked out as a day of dismantling. That is my starting point on my plan. I reason out the plans like this:

“I am lucky to be able to determine my own diary, so spending a day mid-week is something I can manage. If that does not work for you, take the decorations down on the weekend BEFORE – and in fact that is what I may do, depending on if I feel I have had enough of Christmas by that stage. “

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography) 

All Christmas plans you make, should, I believe be fluid. This is your Christmas, and no-one out there should be grading your attempts. We are sometimes our own worst enemies – if you don’t want to cook Christmas dinner and prefer to eat out, then that’s fine. There is a lot of stuff and nonsense about somehow meeting this level of “I must do -” or “I should do —“. Do Christmas the way you want!

Other key dates are pencilled in as I go – I like to do something different on Christmas Eve, and have yet to make plans for New Year’s Eve.

Don’t forget, if you are travelling all the things you need to plan like – valid passports, tickets, house sitter, pet sitter, and so on. Plan each of these arrangements so you don’t end up running around like a headless chicken in the run-up to your trip.

3. Christmas Decorations & the Tree

It may seem silly, but it is best to plan what decorations, are you going to put up, and when are you going to do it. I like to start on the 1st of December – that way Christmas lasts a good while. If you like doing a particular colour scheme, you need to work out what you will need to buy to get the look you want.

Ideally a fresh tree is the perfect thing – nothing smells as good as the real thing, but I hate the dropping needles which seem to keep appearing many months after the tree is gone. If you do want a fresh tree, then plan when and where you are going to get it.

My home is underfloor heated – instant death to a real tree, so a while ago I decided that a fake tree was best and I have a huge 8ft high tree that looks really good and is very dense. I think if fake trees are your preferred option, make sure you get the best quality one you can find.

I am a little crazy as I used 4 trees last year, but I may do 5 this year! Seriously crazy.

Perhaps, but I love it. My big tree goes in the hallway – it is the only space big enough to take it, and then I have a smaller less impressive tree in the hallway upstairs opposite a window so that the lights shine into the night. I put a garish pink little tree with all my vintage ornaments on the table in my living room – also near the window and it glows.  Very tacky and over the top and I adore it. I even have a little tree on the kitchen island and I think I should rethink the decorations on this tree this time around.

Each year too I have loads of lights that are used in all the front windows of the house, and all my Nativity sets and other ornaments have to be set up in various locations throughout the house, including the cloakroom, the guest bedrooms. (It takes me forever to hunt down all the bits when I dismantle.)

I also buy a few new special decorations each year to add to my already beautiful collection. I love putting it all together – unpacking all my precious ornaments and recalling the memories of Christmas’ past is special. I also love the entirely eclectic look I manage to get throughout the house. I get all excited just thinking about it.

4. Clothes

Strange thing to put on the list – but if you are going to be going out to parties and function, have you got the outfits you need and is everything in good order, especially if you have not worn it for some time. I also like to wear something special on Christmas Day, so have to make time to shop for that.

Check to see that you have all the accessories too for the parties – if you are a regular party-goer then this probably does not apply, but in the run up to Christmas the last thing you want to be doing is running around at the last minute getting new heels on your shoes, or searching in vain for the perfect little evening bag you absolutely know you have got, but haven’t seen for a year.

If you are going to be away over the season plan what you need. For instance, if you have been invited to a house in the country there may well be walking activities planned – do you have a decent pair of walking boots or wellies?

Of course all of this applies to partners and kids too.

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

5. The Food

It is no secret that I am a foodie nut so today I have planned my menu for Christmas lunch as well as the menus for the week preceding Christmas. I am not fussed about what happens after Christmas, as I will wing it, and I still am not sure if I will have friends over for New Year, so I can figure all that out later.

Here is my menu from 21st to 26th December:

 21st  – Special Meal – 
Goats cheese and beetroot salad starter
Steak with duxelles sauce, creamed spinach, filled baked potatoes (Wooden plates) 
Pavlova with fruit
22nd Share and Talk 
Cheese fondue with baguettes, pickles and ham. (white plates – eat in kitchen) 
Ice cream and chocolate sauce
23rd  – Special Meal but simple – 
Salmon Wellington, fine beans, new potatoes, roasted beetroot. (Good plates) 
Crème caramel. 
24th  – Finger food buffet – set out at 5pm – (blue plates)
Mulled Wine 
Gravalax, koftas, dips, crudités, sausage rolls, filled choux,  parmesan biscuits,  etc. 
Hot camembert
Mince pies and cream (Vintage gold) 
25th – Christmas Day 
Peri -peri Prawn starter (Green glass)
Roast turkey Crown, stuffing, roast potatoes, Brussels baked in cheese sauce, caramelised carrots, cranberry sauce, gravy, onion salad. 
Christmas pudding & cream 
Cheese board (if needed)
26th – Boxing Day 
Stilton & Cauliflower soup with fresh baked bread. 

Things may change, but there is “The Plan”. From that I can list my ingredients and decide what I am going to a) make in advance or b) buy instead of make. For instance  I will make my own mince pies, but I will use ready made mince. (I cheat – I add a bit of rum, and more fruit to a ready made version to give it more richness.) I may make my own cranberry sauce. I have never made Gravalax before, but I am going to have a go this year.

Because I am having guests I have also made a list of breakfast and lunch items to have on hand. I am certainly not going to cook each lunchtime. It is pretty easy to make a quick breakfast, but lunch takes more effort. So I will bake a ham in advance, find some delicious savoury bits and pieces, and then everyone can help themselves each day.

I love to cook, but I am not going to work my fingers to the bone. I have included a cheese fondue this time – so easy to do, and easy to clean up afterwards – also good for sharing and talking. The Salmon Wellington too is a fail-safe recipe and so little work. Variety is important – although the meal on Christmas eve is light, it is actually more work than all the other days combined, so that will require more planning and working in advance.

Once you are satisfied with your menu plan, knock one dish off each meal. Be ambitious, but don’t go an add a tricky thing that you have never made one before – that is a guaranteed disaster. There is already enough stress around Christmas, so don’t add to it by having too much food or complicated dishes.

Then there are the special bits and pieces – I buy my Pannetone, but make my own fruit cake (I am so rubbish at icing!) and a job for this weekend. I also make my grandmother’s Zoetkoekies (biscuits) – gazillions of them, and I will be sharing the recipe here in a few days time.

I am not a fan of the British pudding, but have a family recipe for steam fruit pudding that I make on Christmas day. If however you are making your own, you need to get a wiggle on if you want it to mature on time – but the fail-safe is that you can simply buy one – or make it on the day.

Be practical – get your ingredients as far in advance as you can. I once had a turkey ripped out of my hands by a very determined shopper – I was only looking…..and it was 2 weeks till Christmas. You also need to be savvy. Supermarkets are under pressure to compete for our business and from now until the “Big Day” there will be loads of specials. Armed with your menu you can start watching for the best deals.

Each supermarket tends to bring out a fancy brochure/magazine at this time of the year with loads of inspiration, recipes and special offers. I know where and when to get the turkey crown and I have been hunting down different recipes – this one from BBC Food looks good. Of course if you are ordering a turkey, do it now.

“I thought about doing a turkey this year – but you know what – no.
 I simply don’t know how to turn the left overs into super dishes afterwards and begin to worry that I may poison my guests – too much, too big – so just the crown this year.” 

(From bbcgoodfood recipes 1788639)

The key message, I think I am trying to get across is – figure out what you want to do for food, do it special, buy what you can, but keep it simple.

6. Christmas Cards &  Messages 

Always a good time of the year to get in touch with friends, or family that you have not heard from in sometime. Whatever your choice of communication, now is the time to get the address book out and make a list.

Times are changing, and I know that I no longer send so many cards – the price of postage, for one, is so much 40 cards will cost £24 in postage – before you buy the cards. Take a good look at the list from last year – you did keep it didn’t you? (I can’t find mine and now not too sure that I made one. So much for being organised.)

Who should you really send to? Who must you send to? And who is the mystery person that keeps sending you a card with the unrecognisable signature? (I get one of these every year and have no clue who sends it.)

Posting dates are available here for the UK. Overseas posting dates are even earlier.

Perhaps sending an e-card? I get them sometimes, but never open them as I fear they may be a virus, but I am not the most tech savvy person. I do like to write to a few people who I have remained friends with for many years, so I will be doing that over the next few weeks.

7. Budget

I mentioned money in my last point – and this where the real discipline comes in. Budget sensibly. Write your gift list and set a target amount for each person. Budget for food and drink, travel, evenings out, decorations and cards, batteries (for the toys that never seem to come with them) and so on. Think about everything.

I don’t think I am mean at Christmas – especially when it comes to food, but I do less and less with the gift thing, so I tend to “save” quite a lot, because I am just not spending it in the first place. I don’t do gift shopping far in advance because my ideas change and I tend to forget what I have already bought and end up spending way too much.

Most important with a budget is that you stick as close as possible to it.

8. Gifts

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

My golden rule at Christmas is to find the perfect gift. If I am visiting anyone at Christmas I always take a house gift – normally a special Christmas decoration. If I am staying over for a few days then I take something more substantial for the home.

Gifts should also not be too practical – I can think of nothing worse than getting something like a kettle as a present. Personal is way best. I also don’t think you have to spend a fortune.

The Internet is an efficient way to shop and you can find some really unusual things on certain sites like Etsy. Be careful not to leave it too late as the goods have to reach you on time, and if you have to post it, make sure you know when the last posting dates are for parcels.

I make a lot of things – crochet for instance, but not everyone appreciates it. So just because I like to make it, doesn’t mean someone will like it. Vintage too can be risky – my vintage may be second-hand junk to someone else. Not everyone likes books, either.

Wrapping too is important. I love making the parcels pretty, and making just that little bit of effort to making it special. Oh – I so love a boxed gift!

My key message here is think about it. Take risks, don’t just give something for the sake of it, keep to your budget and try to enjoy the shopping experience.

9. Traditions – Plan the Activities

You are having guests – what to do with them to keep them occupied. When I go to my friends they treat me so well and I get to go to Christmas markets, hot baths, shopping excursions, mountain hikes in the snow…..

Think about what special things you can do with your guests, or what about creating new traditions for your family.

Board games are good fun too, especially at it can involve everyone old and young. The classics are the best – Risk, Monopoly and Scrabble are among my favourites.

Get some Christmas music for the house, watch those classics on chilly afternoons – Love Actually, The Holiday, The Family Stone and Mama Mia are among my favourites and I simply HAVE. to watch these at Christmastime.

10. Get the House Ready

Not talking about Christmas decorations, but about doing any cleaning. Plan it now. The last thing you want to be doing the day before a guest arrival is to be deep cleaning the house. No chores over Christmas – that is a strong rule for me. I want all of the mundane stuff done at least a week before Christmas. That way I get a real break. During the two weeks I do the most basic housework.

Clean the oven, clear the fridge out so that there is space for all the food. Organise the deep freeze. Deep clean the bathrooms. Wash the tablecloths, bedlinen and tea towels.

Tidy up outside, wash outside light fittings, sweep up leaves and paths.

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

11. Acts of Kindness & Other Special Days

With all the chaos and busy’ness of Christmas it is too easy to forget about those less fortunate and who may be lonely, struggling or cold. Cast around in your community to see what needs to be done. Even if you just sacrifice just a few hours in the run up to Christmas to help a charity who is working with the homeless or the elderly. (I am busy making little Innocent hats at the moment. 200 and counting (a bit of bragging!))

Loneliness at Christmas is always a particular concern for me. How doing something special, for instance; making up a pretty little hamper of some special treats – not the practical stuff – but nice stuff, and give it to someone who you know will be spending Christmas alone.  Just a little act of kindness.

Other special days to remember as any of those people who are celebrating birthdays at this time of year. I have an aunt who was born on Christmas Eve and I always attempt to speak to her on her special day to make sure she is not just snowballed into the “Oh, here is your Birthday and Christmas present all in one.”

12. Be Your Best, Have Fun and Relax

I think that heading says it all. If it all goes haywire – so what. Make the best of it. Have a fun time and try to chill and relax with families. Enjoy the season, create new traditions, love your friends and family. xx

(Photo courtesy of Rene Maritz Photography)

With a huge thanks to my friend Rene Maritz for very kindly allowing me to use some of her Christmas images.

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