Do not believe anyone who says they're not buying presents this year. Do come armed with an annotated Radio Times... Stylist's favourite writers share their hard-learned rules for surviving christmas
Grace Dent (@gracedent), writer
“The secret of a happy family Christmas where you all ‘hang out’ together is to secretly plot ways to keep everyone apart. You need activities: long walks, ice-skating, anything which forces everyone outside. An entire family sitting in one living room – schedule free – for 72 hours, is a recipe for disaster. Be warned: the combination of breakfast drinking, grudges you’ve held since 1992 and the Top Gear Christmas Special will make roundhouse slapping your sister-in-law after a dispute over Quality Street green triangles seem perfectly normal.
Make Boxing Day walks more fun with a secret hip flask of whisky which most people will refuse at first, until mile three where everyone will be tipsy, ruddy cheeked, and wobbly legged. I was squealing with laughter last year watching my father-in-law attempting Dancing On Ice jumps at Somerset House ice rink. This year I’m forcing everyone to Hackney Empire’s pantomime. I’m not much of a fan of all that ‘He’s behind you’ hoo-hah, but I’m a firm believer that sometimes you need to leave the living room to remember why it’s so lovely being back in it.”
Grace's book How to Leave Twitter (£7.99, Faber) is out now
Julia Raeside, The Guardian TV reviewer
“I need two things for a proper Christmas; a steady supply of sherry and at least one exciting TV event. I do like talking and eating and gift-giving too, but only after I’ve decided what I’m going to watch with my fifth Amontillado. So three years ago, imagine my displeasure when on my inaugural Christmas Day with my in-laws, I excitedly raised the subject of that evening’s Doctor Who special, only to be met with blank looks. ‘We don’t watch it,’ dead-panned my mother-in-law and returned to scalping defenceless sprouts. They weren’t even going to watch the other side, they just preferred to switch the TV off after the Queen and ‘spend time with each other’.
The horror! Come 6pm when an enthusiastic game of Pictionary was in full flow, I faked food poisoning so
I could sneak up to the spare bedroom and stealth-watch their other TV. How could my husband not have warned me about their preferences? The coward chickened out clearly hoping I’d be too embarrassed to kick off. This year I will greet them with a cheerful, ‘Merry Christmas’ before handing them a carefully highlighted Christmas Radio Times indicating the programmes I cannot miss. The Downton special I can take or leave but Doctor Who is a non-negotiable deal-breaker.”
Sarah Morgan, comedy writer
“It’s round about my third Christmas dinner of December where I start wondering if a person can die of eating too many little sausages wrapped in bacon. And I LOVE little sausages wrapped in bacon. It’s just that my husband and I both have separated parents,each with new families, so we try to keep everyone happy by doing as many Christmas Days as possible. Not just on Christmas Day, but across a relentless week of honey-glazed, pine-scented festivity. Before each fake Christmas dinner, we drop hints to the chef that perhaps a delicate Thai soup, or a nice cheese sandwich, would be kinder to the tummy, but no-one wants to be ‘that guy’. It’s hard enough keeping straight whose Step-Aunty Something isn’t speaking to Bio- Cousin-In-Law Whoever.
But you know what? I love it. I love Christmas. Even this bizarre 3D Mega-ChristmasI’ve been indulging since I met my beloved. So don’t fight it. Pickle yourself in Baileys. If there was ever a time for a near-suffocating amount of family love, it’s Christmas – and anyway, when we were kids, we were always told that separate mummy and daddy seasonal festivities were a GOOD thing, “Two lots of presents! Yay!”. So I can’t let down my inner eight-year-old. These days, modern families are fractured, fraught and reconstituted like cheap supermarket ham, so an excuse to bring us together should never be a bad thing. And anyway, it only comes once a year. Or, in my case, four.”
Bibi Lynch, writer
“I don’t smoke now. But I did for 20 years. And my dad never knew – until the day after Boxing Day six years ago. I was having the usual Christmas nightmares: family rows; actual conversations about Brussels sprouts; wishing I wasn’t trapped in a house three light years away from a letterbox let alone public transport… While I was sulking in my bedroom with a stolen bottle of Advocaat, my then boyfriend texted and said I should get back to London to see him. And that was that. My head went into ‘I have to get home!’ mode. I packed my stuff and begged Dad to drive me to the station. We pulled up, I kissed Dad, ran to the platform and waited for my train. And waited. And waited some more. Thanks very much, ‘ice on tracks’! I rang my boyfriend. He couldn’t get away from work to collect me. I rang a friend. She was stuck with her sick mother. I rang a cab company. £100?! (They wouldn’t take John Lewis vouchers.)
In the end I had to call Dad and ask him to drive back for me. I was so fed up I lit up when we got back to his house. Right there in front of him. His face absolutely crumpled. His little (39-year-old) girl smoking! It was like I’d told him Santa didn’t exist. So whether it’s your Christmas binge-drinking (don’t suck the sherry out of the trifle with a straw), your spoilt brat behaviour (you don’t like the gloves. Your life isn’t ruined) or your sleazy flirty ways (you’ve been sitting on Santa’s lap for an hour now), Christmas isn’t the time for the big reveal. Wait until January. And then you can ruin their New Year instead.”
Bibi's new podcast is on tvbite.com
Jessica Ruston, writer
“I love Christmas. I love the food, the smells, the traditions, the terrible cracker jokes… And surprisingly for someone who is not a big shopping fan throughout the rest of the year, I love the shopping. It’s the satisfaction that comes with choosing the right present for someone, and yes, if I’m honest, the credit I get for it. Past successes include a whole kilo chocolate bar and making a story my husband had written into a published book complete with ‘quotes’ on the back cover. But beware, women, of being too helpful at choosing the perfect Christmas gift at the start of a relationship – you may find yourself lumbered with the role of Christmas Elf for evermore – the designated originators of ideas about what other people would like for Christmas, even if you’ve only met them twice and they live in Toronto.
My spreadsheet system includes columns for my husband’s gift for my parents, them for him, me for everyone, ideas for other people for me (including web links for my last-minute-shopper husband). I’ve created a monster. And there’s no end in sight, as I think the present-buying gene is a hereditary one – my mother is still doing stockings for my sister and I, aged, respectively, 26 and 34. But it’s all worth it when I see the grins Christmas morning. I just hope they don’t realise my smile isn’t because of altruistic joy, it’s because somehow – and I don’t know how it happens *cough* my pile’s the biggest.”
Jessica Ruston's new book The Darker Side of Love (£6.99, Headline) is out on 16 February
Esther Walker, writer
“When I met my husband Giles Coren, restaurant critic for The Times, I was determined to impress him with my cooking skills and set about the kitchen with all the subtlety and reserve of a chimpanzee in Hamleys. Luckily, my husband has got the stomach of a fox and he gobbled down even my scariest suppers – although the memory of the still-raw-in-the-middle Southern fried chicken still upsets me. Although my cooking has improved, during our dry-run Christmas dinner earlier this month, I outdid myself (a little learning is a dangerous thing). I insisted on doing everything myself and obnoxiously decided that Nigella’s recipe for her famous turkey brine, which promised the holy grail of a juicy bird, was incorrect.
‘She’s got the amount of salt wrong,’ I said show-offily to my husband as I held the tub of Saxo upside down over the pan full of water, pouring in twice as much as necessary. The result? Turkey meat the consistency of compressed tissue paper. ‘Mmm how delicious,’ said one of our fake-Christmas guests with a grimace as the dry meat stuck together their molars. Luckily, it was only a practice. For the real thing I’ll make sure my husband is involved. And I’ll never doubt Nigella again.”
Read Esther's blog here
Kate Bussmann, writer
“I don’t know whether I’m stingy or just a little over the idea that Christmas equals non-stop shopping. Maybe it’s because deep down, I’m incredibly ungrateful, and firmly believe that if we just spent all that money on ourselves rather than trying to guess what other people wanted, we’d end up with loads of stuff we’d actually use and would cherish. Whatever the reason, a few years ago, I decided to act on it, emailed my brothers and sister and suggested that we didn’t buy each other presents that year. They all agreed. Brilliant, I thought. How fantastically post-consumerist of us all. Until 23 December, when I stopped by my mother’s house. There, underneath the Christmas tree, was a huge pile of presents.
They had all caved. Not just one of them, all three. Hovering between gratitude and gibbering, apoplectic bewilderment I resisted the urge to wrap whatever I found in the bottom of my handbag. I called my little brother. ‘It’s just something little,’ he shrugged. But even something little isn’t nothing which is what I would have had to give all of them, Scrooge-style, if I hadn’t raced off to Selfridges on the most agoraphobia-inducing day of the year and rectified the situation. The moral of the story? Buy, buy, buy, and don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise.”
Kate's book, A Twitter Year: 365 Days in 140 Characters (£10, Bloomsbury) is out now
Gizzi Erskine, chef
“Every year I make exactly the same mistake. I overestimate, by a factor of at least 10, how many people I’m actually cooking for. If I’m cooking for five people, I do 50 roast potatoes. If there are 10 for dinner, I have to start peeling three days before. I let the turkey man talk me into a ‘slightly’ bigger bird. Except it’s not ‘slightly’ bigger. It’s as big as an ostrich. Spurred on by the size of my bird, I braise a continent’s worth of cabbage and sprouts. Dessert is worse.
Every year I make chutneys, pickles, mincemeat, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. No-one in the world needs that many raisins in their life. I am compelled by my inner Christmas gremlin who whispers ‘but what if there isn’t enough food?’ But there always is. Not since Tiny Tim has anyone ever gone hungry in my house at Christmas. It might be worth reminding yourself that the next time a car-salesman turned turkey-pusher convinces you to buy a bird the size of a hatchback.”
Gizzi's new book My Kitchen Table: 100 Foolproof Suppers (£7.99, virgin books) is out 5 January
Kate Spicer (@spicerlife), journalist, blogger and documentary maker
“Puffy and grey, I would often arrive at my rellies’ on Christmas Eve in chronic need of rest. The problem was that my festive feelings generally kicked in round mid-November, leaving me with an intolerably long run at the party season. Arriving home on Christmas Eve, everyone else would be full of beans, while all I could do was throw the worst kind of fuel in my empty tanks. I’d graze all day on food and booze and end it slumped in front of the TV popping one chocolate brazil nut after another to give me a microscopic lift.
This kind of Christmas had to end. I got sick, literally, of waking up late afternoon on New Year’s Day and feeling like a beached whale with social drinking issues who would chain eat from breakfast to bed. I love a late night (and still do), but I temper them now with days off booze, proper sleep and putting nourishing things in my body. The days of eating a whole box of chocolate brazil nuts, which I don’t even like that much, because I’m plain partied out, are over.”
Lucy Mangan, Stylist’s columnist
“My family once played unwitting host to a vegetarian. In Catford. In 1987. We’d never heard of such a thing. When the turkey was ceremoniously deposited on the table, she did the classic ‘Oh, I’m sorry – did nobody tell you I’m…?’ You could have heard a chipolata drop. I could also make mention of the time Nanny (Dad’s mum) came to stay and filled the house with her farts.
It was hilarious – my sister and I were quite small and followed her around the house waiting for her to do it, but it became quite… um... miasmic when we were all round the dinner table. Eating sprouts only added insult to olfactory injury. So, do check that your guests have no unexpected foibles. Then you can be prepared to cater for them or rescind the invitation as quickly as possible. I advise the latter. I welcome only continent carnivores to my table.”