The stakes are high. The dangers are hideous. As a stress-inducer, remember, Christmas is up there with bereavement and moving house. Consider the cocktail. Journey-fatigue. Sleeplessness, resulting from odd hours and unfamiliar, probably uncomfortable, beds. Hyperglycaemic children. Binge-drinking. Family resentments boiling up like a Greek tragedy, but without outsiders to temper the consequences. My childhood Christmases were weird. I was raised in Nyasaland, where singing about ‘dashing through the snow’ in 100˚ was plain daft, and where the Stilton, having journeyed unrefrigerated for four tropical weeks, was visibly writhing. Thereafter, I was a chorister at Canterbury. We stayed at boarding school (gleefully, as we were spoiled horribly by the Canons’ wives) to sing for a week.
Mercifully, my wife and, crucially, her mother, do Christmas brilliantly. And here is the first lesson. Do it their way, and never once disobey. (Ignore the great Les Dawson: ‘My mother-in-law has been coming to us for Christmas for the past 20 years. Sooner or later, were going to have to invite her in.’) Volunteer nobly to have it at your place. Everyone will gasp at your generosity, but you can then impose your own rules. Large numbers of people enjoy boundaries. Eventually, your Christmas will become a tradition for them, too, and the minefield of arguments about where to go each year will be cleared. Invite absolutely everyone, to dilute potential fallout. This includes both sets of parents, step-children, siblings’ new partners’ parents, divorcees, step-nieces the lot. There’s always the Travelodge up the road for the oldies. They won’t feel excluded they’ll welcome the haven.
And crucially, invite buffer guests. Local people who are on their own, absurdly distant cousins, international exiles. The ‘spirit of Christmas’ argument is handy in this regard: ‘Poor thing: she’d be all alone otherwise.’ What Poor Thing doesn’t realise is that she is there to draw fire, to provide a subject for less charged gossip, and to shame potential trouble-makers into best behaviour. By the same token, make the whole festival mercilessly child-focused, to divert conflict. Be brisk about this, switching the conversation to the children whenever trouble looms, and allocating an adult to each child, not just to babysit each other, but to write down their thank you lists. But do control them. Morning stockings, yes, but no presents until after The Queen. It’s tough, but youll have them behaving like angels all day. The children, too.
Do it utterly, utterly traditionally. The same every year, in every detail. No radical matte-black tree decorations: it must be the much-loved old fairy. No tagine or suckling pigs: turkey, pud, Stilton. Ritual is a great seedbed for humour, and humour is the elixir that will get you through. Minimise effort. Keep other meals simple. Get guests to bring them. No starters; therell be more than enough. Cold supper on Christmas Night, but make it chic. Iced vodka, caviar and smoked fish. Not too expensive, as everyone by then will be stuffed, and it does cut the post-luncheon flatulence. Now, men, do not offer to help in the kitchen. At all. Quit the field on December 23. Thereafter, the gender-divide is as traditional as a Welsh Sunday. Men do the booze run, lay the table, meet the train, run last-minute shopping errands, and carve. They might risk loading the dishwasher, but I don’t advise it. Leave the women to that important decompression-chamber of hilarity, the debrief over the washing-up, as you exercise the children’s new toys off the premises altogether.
However, do help with absolutely everything else in the run-up. Especially with the tree. Make the beds, hang the mistletoe, wrap, wrap, wrap. Take the most menial, even irrational, orders as meekly as you are able. To this, there is one hugely important exception…Don’t even think of doing the Christmas shopping for anyone but her. Youll only get it wrong, and shell enjoy it fathoms more than you could. Instead, reward her with generous gifts and particularly with her stocking. Stockings (teasing, intimate, opened in bed) will make her feel especially cherished.
For pity’s sake, maximise sleep. Keep your bedroom sacrosanct. Heap children pell-mell, regardless of age and gender, in the most remote bedroom possible. (As long as their stockings are absorbing, they will amuse each other until the 9am earliest that you have permitted them to come in and wish you a happy Christmas.) Two small turkeys, rather than one whopper, means you wont have to get up in the dark to put them in the oven. And, rather than Matins, go to Midnight Mass, and then relax. You’ll have a useful couple of hours to do the wrapping waiting about on Christmas Eve, and she won’t feel neglected in the kitchen the next day. Delegate, ruthlessly. Small children on sprouts. Teenagers on fires. Oldies on silver. (On this last, Joan Rivers is unforgivable: ‘Put a cloth in one hand, and a candlestick in the other, and let Parkinson’s do the rest.’) Send everybody out on walks. Not only will it re-oxygenate the atmosphere after fires and port, but you two will get a breather, too.
This last is controversial. Absolutely no television, except The Queen. It’ll only cause arguments. Use the video recorder. There’ll be time enough to catch up later. Instead, play games: carols round the piano (musical ineptitude adds to the gaiety) and Wink Murder, to sublimate the instincts that are probably, by now, heartfelt. The stakes may be high, but the rewards are priceless. If it all goes off well, a safely negotiated Christmas will cement your relationship. And it’s worth every bit of effort. Christmases are what, for better or worse, the children will remember.