From the best drinks to gifting rules, our guest editor reveals how to enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.
“How would Claudia Winkleman like to be shot for the cover of her festive issue?” we asked ourselves when she agreed to guest edit our final edition of 2019. Festooned in lights? As a human (Strictly) glitter ball? In black velvet pyjamas? Scrub that. Claudia Winkleman didn’t want to be shot for the cover at all. Instead, she requested someone to illustrate her. And by someone, she specifically meant: Axel Scheffler, the illustrator behind such iconic children’s books as The Gruffalo, Room On The Broom, Zog and BBC One’s Christmas Day animation special The Snail And The Whale.
“When I was pregnant with my first child – this was 17 years ago – somebody gave me The Gruffalo and I thought, ‘don’t be ridiculous, there’ll be no time for that’,” Claudia explains. “But those books have actually been a huge part of all my children’s lives [Claudia has one daughter and two sons]. We read them every night before bed. I’d love Axel Scheffler to illustrate me. Let him run free. It does not have to be flattering, I really couldn’t give a shit. I am physically crumbling. Who cares?”
This is Claudia in a nutshell: smart (she has a degree in history of art from Cambridge). Irreverent. Self-aware. Funny. I’d go as far as to say that the Strictly host – who has just wrapped up her sixth series hosting alongside Tess Daly – is something of a modern day national treasure, although I suspect she’d rather die than admit that.
Claudia is far happier discussing winter, her love of most things festive and her hatred for the middle of the year.
“I loathe summer. I think I’m allergic to summer. I don’t like salads. I don’t want to see people’s toes. I don’t want spaghetti straps. I don’t like communal joy. I hate picnics. I don’t want a chicken drumstick,” she says, getting increasingly passionate.
“I like winter food, I like it getting dark at 4pm. I like pubs and fairy lights and port and stew and anything with a pie crust. And friends and being cramped and steamy windows and noise. It’s a phobia.” So here, for your festive joy, are Claudia’s 12 rules for the Christmas season. Disobey them at your peril.
1 . EAT EVERYTHING
“This is no time for healthy eating. If you’re coming round to mine, I want to feed you mountains of caramelised nuts, baby mince pies and hunks of cheese. If you ask me for a raw carrot or half an apple I will be dismayed. I like to eat brandy butter on toast every morning – can’t recommend it enough – and will then have a pre-lunch snack of 20 After Eights followed by a handful of Quality Street. Obviously you do you, but I would highly suggest getting stuck in.
Christmas food is simply outstanding. No more ridiculous summer salads. A beetroot tart and some leaves? You’re alright, mate. A cold soup? No, ta! And we can finally get involved in roast potatoes, gravy, bacon bits and Christmas cake. Food that is hot, steaming, packed full of salt, fat and sometimes cloves. Eat. It. All. Don’t panic, we can go back to kale in January.”
2 . EMBRACE BOARDGAMES
“There’s nothing I like more than sitting round the table, shouting at my family. I love them with all my heart and we genuinely never argue (although the screen time chats have got quite fruity of late). But we really let loose when there’s a game involved. Can I suggest Bird Bingo? We’re obsessed. Plus, the conversations about whether a mandarin duck or a blue-footed booby is the best bird go on all day.
If you have good eyesight (I don’t) then a 1,000-piece puzzle is unbeatable; a good early present for 20 December and everyone can have a go. Also, it’s worth mentioning here that I love bridge. Like, really love it. If you don’t play then give yourself a lesson in a nearby bridge club as a present. When you’re obsessed, call me and we can discuss conventions.”
3 . GIVE BACK, IF YOU CAN
“We are ridiculously lucky and there’s no better way to realise this than to give our time to people who are going to have a tricky one this Christmas. My local food bank generously lets us go and help out and I’m not telling you to do the same, but if you’re buying a present then consider one of the fantastic charity T-shirts or sweatshirts on offer .
The reverse advent calendar is another excellent option. We have a box in our kitchen and every day, instead of them opening something, the kids have to choose something to go in. Lovely bath bombs from Lush? A neon nerf gun? A great book? Any charity shop or food bank will happily take them in the run up to the big day and it’s about the most Chrismassy thing you can do. Sorry for the lecture. I realise lots of people can’t give back as easily but because of my faintly ludicrous life, I can, so we do.”
4. BELIEVE IN BAILEYS
“I’m useless at drinking. I’ve really tried but I always end up asleep (I had to have a nap at my own wedding) but Baileys is an altogether different story. A short glass, tons of ice and some of that meltingly good liquid is pure magic. Especially while peeling potatoes with Michael Bublé playing on the radio.”
5. BAN CLEANSER
“I’ve never taken my make-up off. The black smudgy mess you see on my face is layer upon layer of old eyeliner. Some of it might still be on there from the 90s. At this time of year I think more is, well, more. Get some black kohl and shove it all over your eyelids. We’re going for Gene Simmons, Alice Cooper or a fully blown pirate look here. Christmas is no time for a polite and discreet brown liner. Throw it on and if you think that’s enough, throw on some more. Pour yourself something sparkly, invite friends round, chuck some chestnuts in the oven and channel Chrissie Hynde. Plus, it looks even better the morning after. Ban cotton wool and cleanser from the 24 December and you’ll have a ball.”
6 . PLAY TIM MINCHIN NICE AND LOUD
“Christmas music is always a good idea. The best Christmas song ever written is White Wine In The Sun by Tim Minchin. This isn’t a conversation, this is a bona fide fact. Don’t @ me.”
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7 . DON’T SUCCUMB TO A FESTIVE KNIT
“I’m all for twinkly new clothes and sparkly just-out-the-bag jeans but don’t buy anything new for Christmas. I learnt this the hard way. You’re running around in the third week of December manically buying presents for aunts and hollering ‘add to the basket’ to anyone who will listen, and you see a very glamorous sweater with a robin on it. It’s late, your feet are tired, it’s winking at you. And you think, ‘Yes! This will take the stress out. I’ll wear it on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, and everything will just be dandy.
I am in control, I have a special new outfit for Christmas.’ You spend the money you were supposed to use on your uncle’s aftershave and on your mum’s candle, and you take it home. Then one of two things will happen. Either you will wear it and immediately spill something on it and then you’ll feel all sad and the robin sweater will be chucked in the laundry basket (which doesn’t get sorted out till 2 January) or you’ll do what I do: skip home and put it in a really extra special place. The back of the cupboard, on the hook behind the bathroom door under damp towels and you’ll forget all about it.
You’re filling stockings (I so hope kids aren’t reading this), decorating the tree, wrapping presents and tidying the house for hours when all of a sudden, Christmas has happened and the little robin sweater is sitting there utterly unworn. Wear what you always wear, wear what you’re comfy in, wear what you like. A black jumper with black jeans or a onesie and be done. Fashion is for the sales in January. Repeat after me: I will not succumb to the robin.”
8 . ALWAYS ADD HONEY
“Cocktail sausages are absolutely fantastic if halfway through cooking, you add a big gloop of honey. Let them wallow in it while they’re cooking and when they come out, chuck on a few sesame seeds. Delicious!”
9 . LAY DOWN GIFT RULES
“You’re going to think I’m evil but the only thing that slightly ruins Christmas is presents. There are lists, there are panics, there’s an eight-year-old who cries because the Barbie isn’t the right Barbie. You open a weird candlestick holder in the shape of a watermelon and don’t have the heart to ask your cousin if she kept the receipt. There’s wrapping everywhere and mess and gluttony and it feels like a giant, enormous waste.
Christmas is about fairy lights and laughter and cold turkey sandwiches and great telly and carols. It can’t be about getting stuff. I realise this is unpopular (you should talk to my children, they’re livid) but my family now give only what you can eat or use in the bath. I give my dad cheese, he gives me shower gel. My mum gives me tea lights and I give her shampoo and delicious things to eat. She’s mad for anything with chestnut and I love hunting down marron anything – I once found some chestnut honey. That was a good day.”
10. MAINTAIN YOUR FRINGE
“Four words. Head & Shoulders, baby. Oh. And a comb for the shower. After you’ve put conditioner in, you absolutely must comb through your hair. This is not a suggestion, this is a way of life.”
11. VISITOR YOUR LOCAL
“I don’t go to pubs. Not because I don’t like pubs, I just like staying in more. I’ve been to the countryside about twice (I’m not joking) and they were very nice there but slap bang in the middle of London is where you can find me. In bed. I leave the house only when I absolutely have to. I groan when I have to go out at night (don’t be offended, I just like my duvet and books) and I’m happiest when I’m not wearing shoes after 7pm.
But at Christmas, I really – and I mean really – love a pub. They’re cosy and warm and loud and full of cheer. Half a Guinness and a bag of crisps while wearing a big coat and ancient boots, then I know we’re nearly there. Pubs at Christmas then, find one and call friends and go. Also, pubs have pies and I’m incompetent when it comes to making my own pastry.”
12 . EMBRACE NAFF DECORATIONS
“What I’d like us to do is not think that we’re decorating a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York. We should be relaxed about decorations. Your two-year-old niece might have designed a half-stuck-together faux Christmas pudding with a bad bit of sewing on it and lots of people would say, ‘You’ve got to put it at the back of the tree.’ I say put it at the front. This is no time to be chic. This is time for traditions.
Go tinsel, go multicoloured lights. And throw it all on. Put up the decorations you had as a child. The decorations that remind you of when you all played spin the bottle when you were 18. The decorations that give you a little warm glow. Don’t worry about sticking to a ‘warm white’ theme, don’t buy new decorations. You don’t get prizes for a chic tree, you get prizes for a messy tree. Besides it’s not forever, it’s just for a bit. Put it up and let the memories flood in. Happy Christmas everyone.”
Photography: Sarah Brick
Head Image: Artwork by Axel Scheffler. Characters copyright © Julia Donaldson and A. Scheffler Ltd 2019. Books published by Alison Green Books (AGB) and Macmillan Children’s Books (MCB). Clockwise: The Gruffalo (MCB), Stick Man (AGB), Zog (AGB), Janet and Bill The Smeds and the Smoos (AGB), The Snail The Snail and the Whale (MCB) and Mouse The Gruffalo (MCB).
Vignettes: Artwork by Axel Scheffler. Characters copyright © Julia Donaldson and A. Scheffler Ltd 2019. Books published by Alison Green Books (AGB) and Macmillan Children’s Books (MCB). Stick Man (AGB), Janet and Bill The Smeds and the Smoos (AGB) and Mouse The Gruffalo (MCB).