Stylist spends an entertaining afternoon with the patron saint of inspired Christmas parties – the one and only, Nigella Lawson
Illustration: David Downton Words: Debbie McQuoid
Nigella Lawson is reclining on the sofa in Suite 217 at Claridge’s. Before her is some afternoon tea. Before that is David Downton, the hotel’s artist in residence, who has been sketching away for the past hour. The talk has ranged from whether they still have stockings for their grown-up children (yes) and who David loves drawing (all of them, from Erin O’Connor to Carmen Dell’Orefice and Catherine Deneuve), to the in-the-know rooms at the hotel you just have to book (if we told you, we’d have to kill you).
Last Christmas, Nigella guest edited Stylist and entertained the team with stories about how much she loves Christmas (and where to buy the best gifts for cooks – Lakeland FYI). As a direct consequence, this year it seemed only right that Nigella should be our go-to oracle of Christmas entertaining for our special illustrated issue. After all, if there’s anyone who knows about creating the perfect party, it’s her. Each year, Nigella and her husband Charles Saatchi invite 45 of their nearest and dearest (“generally speaking it will include a 90 year old and a newborn”) for what is essentially the best festive get-together you could imagine. Karaoke is mentioned. So are wigs. First though, the very funny Nigella wastes no time charming David. “I hate to say this, but I am more of a words person,” she smiles…
It’s the illustrated issue of Stylist. Are there any drawings you remember from your childhood?
Oh yes, but the ones I remember were because I loved the books. There’s a wonderful children’s book called Bread And Jam For Frances [written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban]. And then I loved all the Richard Scarry books.
Ah, they were great…
When the children [Mimi, now 19, and Bruno, 16] went through their hamster stage, I thought I would make them all business suits to wear and make a Richard Scarry tableau. Obviously I realised the error of my ways… But in memory of him, we bought a mouse nativity scene where some mice have been dressed up like a nativity in a box.
A taxidermy nativity scene?
Well, no. It’s a great knitted nativity. It is the whole scene as you would imagine, but knitted.
Can you tell us about your fabulous Christmas party? What goes into the perfect shindig?
For me – wigs. Around that time of year, people are in big family groups and some don’t know each other and some do. So I get a photo booth and instead of Christmas hats, we use wigs. I’m always a Swedish blonde, obviously. It means there’s not the full-on nightmare of fancy dress and nor do you have to do it. There’s a bit of karaoke too. It makes you braver. If you’re doing karaoke in a wig, you’re not being you; it doesn’t matter so much.
Who are the regulars on your guest list?
I don’t really want to be a name dropper. What’s nice for me and my children is that I’ve got John’s [Diamond, Nigella’s first husband who died of throat cancer in 2001] family as well. There’s a Diamond-Lawson-Saatchi component. My school friend Tracey Scoffield has twin boys six weeks older than Mimi. She refers to the teenagers as ‘the scum’. “Are ‘the scum’ outside smoking?” ‘The scum’ get very embarrassed about us because we all get very drunk and sing.
What’s the drink of choice?
I make a drink I call a Poinsettia because it feels seasonal. It’s a mix of fizzy wine, cranberry juice and Grand Marnier. But I don’t do full cocktails; I can’t be managing with all that, really. And I don’t do a starter. I have things like Twiglets and Hula Hoops. At Christmas, you cannot be too tasteful. I make sure there is Quality Street all over the place. Every single surface must be covered in Quality Street.
Sounds like a good rule. Any others?
No formal seating arrangements. That’s important. People automatically assume there is a hierarchy; who’s nearest the host. I buy tombola tickets and put them in a hat so everyone is told where they’re sitting but it’s all completely random. I don’t care about boy-girl-boy-girl; what century are you living in? It’s a problem if you are beside someone you really hate, but even then, you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you?
Any infamous Christmas rows?
There’s no row that can be as big as a family row. That’s one of my great rules about Christmas lunch; you always need to have someone that your family will be embarrassed to look bad in front of. You need a human shield. That’s my trick for Christmas lunch.
You mentioned karaoke; what’s your song of choice?
There are certain actors who like going up there and singing, so I hide behind someone like that with a bit of ribbon. One year I did everything in black wrapping paper with coloured ribbon and it did look rather gorgeous. I do equate Christmas presents with the absolute exhaustion of when the children were small and filling up their stockings. When they’re small you can get things really cheap. But now everything costs a fortune. I’ve turned into that person who says, “When I was your age we just had a satsuma and a chocolate coin”.
When does Christmas start for you?
16 December, because Mimi’s birthday is on the fifteenth and we put the tree up after that. It comes down on my birthday, 6 January. It was always very depressing as a child. My birthday was celebrated by everybody taking the decorations down. It was like living in a room with the lights turned out.
Do you keep your decorations or buy brand new ones every year?
I keep old ones because the Christmas sentiment is about ritual and tradition, but we do different ones ever since the kids were little. We make our own edible decorations. And I’ve got some beautiful Milano glass baubles, but they’re a bit heavy. It’s good to have a few really camp ones. And obviously I love the fairy lights.
What do you want for Christmas that you think you might get?
I’m a very hard person to buy presents for because I don’t wear jewellery or anything. Is it a sign of age when you don’t want things? Or a sign that you have too many things? I don’t know. As I get older, I think that memories and experiences are more important than things.
Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration by Nigella Lawson (£26, Chatto & Windus) is out now; watch Nigellissima: An Italian Inspired Christmas on BBC iPlayer