50 ways to keep calm at Christmas

Feeling overwhelmed already? Christmas doesn’t have to be so stressful.


Basic family survival skills

Ghosts of Christmases past are lurking. People are walking on eggshells. If you don’t limit time with extended family, family may regress into familiar and scary childhood roles as though auditioning for Jeremy Kyle. If you’re dreaming of a calm Christmas, keep visits short and sweet.

Who cares what other people think? Lower your standards to a level everyone else can deal with and enjoy yourself.

Christmas is marketed as “the most wonderful time of the year” with dream presents and perfect food all consumed by colour-coordinated multi-generational families where the exhausted mother (why is it always the mother?) who is doing it all smiles beneficiently (is it the drugs?) as long as everyone (but her) is happily seated on the brand new interest-free living room suite. This is a lie. We all know it’s a lie. Yet these advertising images still make us feel like we’re not good enough. So don’t feel guilty because your Christmas Day doesn’t come straight out of a TV ad. Delegate and share the work: nobody likes to be around a martyr. Extended periods of time with family, even with alcohol (or especially with alcohol), make an escape plan essential. “Walking the dog” is a great excuse to leave the pressure cooker for a while. The dog probably will have stolen sweets so will be extra jittery, and thus needs more walks. A small child or children can be substituted.

Don’t play Monopoly. Not ever. It’s worse than a Ouija Board for raising long-suppressed resentments and exposing poor character traits. If you like traditions, choose short-duration games like Snakes and Ladders and Snap. Children (and even adults) these days are rapidly losing the skills of patience, turn-taking and negotiation. Even Scrabble is too much for competitive rule-sticklers keen to settle scores going back to 1995.

Have a Christmas story book on hand for soothing lap-time with little ones.

If you are relatively young and unhitched at an extended family occasion, prepare to be grilled. Have ready neutral answers for the inevitable boyfriend/marriage/baby questions. Keep them light-hearted and try to answer with another question as to divert attention. “Well Granny, are you thinking about making ME some grandchildren any time soon?”

Calm your hyper under-12s with walks in the fresh air.

There are highly-evolved individuals (mostly in Scandanavia) who are able to host exes and “steps” and new partners in one big happy family, but this rarely works outside Ikea ads. Everybody doesn’t have to be together at the same time. Essential travel only: three Christmas dinners in three counties just to avoid difficult conversations with demanding relatives is guilt-driven folly.

On Stephen’s Day, do absolutely nothing. Changing out of pyjamas is utter failure. Of course, if you’re 20 something or still have some kind of cosmopolitan life do by all means head to the races or whatever hell awaits.

“The first Christmas since”. . . swallowing your emotions may lead to grief-triggered angry outbursts and tears on the day. Before Christmas proper, find a good listener to talk through your grief with, then accept it on the day but try to keep busy.

Whatever the gift, smile and say you love it. It sets a good example.

Plan Skype dates with those abroad in advance. Time differences can be tricky, but the earlier in the day for both parties the better – stress levels are lower and there’s less booze on board. Make sure devices are powered up, the internet connection is strong enough and headsets (if needed) are working. Prepare to be sad and don’t be afraid to show them how much they are missed.

Practical ways to entertain Smorgasbords are a great alternative to planning the entire day around a sit-down meal. A deadline is a headwreck for the cook, so serve the food buffet-style, putting everything out at once from nibbles to roasts to desserts. Let people eat when they’re hungry or whenever they arrive. Serve nine kinds of herring and you’re a real Swede.

Turkey: Economical frozen is fine – just give it a few days to thaw out in the fridge.

Never made chestnut dressing? This isn’t the time to try it. Use Paxo. Add some almonds and dried apricots if you must, but it’s actually good all on its own.

Ask someone else to peel the potatoes. Rapeseed oil makes great roasties. Secrets of self-preservation Don’t drink alcohol? Bring your own elderflower fizz. Nobody else gives a damn enough to buy it for you. Eat lots of fruit and drink as much water as booze. Wine doesn’t count as fruit.

Plan drink-free days between Christmas and New Year’s.

Pretend you’ve gone away and enjoy the cloistered excess.

Turn off your phone for three days. Sweet cravings running wild? Resist those 3 for 2 offers on chocolates and shortbread “for anyone who might drop by”. Be honest, you’re going to eat it all yourself. And we’ve heard that a tablet a day of chromium prevents cravings.

Buy yourself to a new pair of slippers. It just feels nice. Don’t mention Santa too early. . . It’s a useful bargaining tool - for bedtime, for brushing teeth - but mention Santa too soon or too often and all leverage will be lost.

. . .Or too late. Once the (consensually edited) Santa letters have been posted, call time on further requests. Santa has the child’s letter now and it can’t be changed. This prevents last minute nagging for shiny new things seen on TV or online. “Santa will bring you plenty! Leave some toys for the other children!”

Save money without fuss Decorate with holly and ivy from the garden and take cut-off branches from the tree seller’s lot to lay across a mantlepiece or tie in a swag. Your house does not have to look like a Brown Thomas window. Aim for Nordic miser – sorry, elegant minimalist.

The only family member who needs a Christmas outfit is the dog.

Sort your tree lights. It is a known fact that by mid-December, every set of white lights in the country will be sold.

Tell everyone to keep it under €20 this year. Socks, gloves, books, manicure kits with polish, hyacinth and amaryllis bulbs in pots, nicely covered blank notebooks, decent pens.

Nobody can have enough quality black opaque tights. The cost of what you give is not the measure of your love . . .

. . . Unless it’s your mother.

Don’t throw money at the problem. Panicked, over-compensatory purchases will send your blood pressure soaring.

Keep it local this year. Chemists’, wine and specialty shops have everything you need. Leave everything until Christmas Eve and enjoy the empty aisles, and the discounts, at 5pm. Avoid multiple shopping trips – they lead to “just in case” presents (we still have those three Michael Buble CDs from last year.)

What have you got from last year? Jars of mincemeat and Christmas puddings in the back of the cupboard may still be within sellby dates.

Keep note on your phone of where you have hidden presents or you may never find them – til next year. Wrapping paper – you know you’ve got heaps of it somewhere, but if you have to buy, economical brown paper and red ribbon are just as nice.

Use long-burning, unscented pillar candles – too many scented candles cause olfactory clash if not nasal bleeding.

Avoid last-minute panic You don’t need more than one net of sprouts. Anyone who likes them that much can bring their own.

Keep three pairs of scissors and three rolls of sellotape, and preferably one set in every room in the house. It will stop you going over the edge.

Don’t put out your back. Ask for help and bend with the knees, lift with the legs.

Just wear black. Accessorise with something glittery. Ensure ongoing prescriptions are up to date and fill before the holiday, if needed.

Put the turkey in the oven early then let it rest when it’s done. A well wrapped freshly roasted turkey – we’re talking 10 layers of tinfoil – will keep warm for several hours. If you have to travel with it, don’t fret, it will be fine and juicy. If not, smother it in hot gravy.

Get in plenty of fuel and firelighters. Or you’ll be paying ridiculous prices in garages. A fiver-a-bale? Are they joking?

Start the DIY doll’s house now in a friend’s house. The 24th is too late to be assembling complicated toys. You don’t want Santa and the child to cross paths at 5am.

Buying on a credit card in “the sales” is not “saving money”. Redeeming vouchers is. Don’t lose them!

Shops open on the 27th. You won’t starve.

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