The past few years have been rocky for Christmas. In 2020 it was cancelled. In 2021, it felt a little more appealing. Things began to feel more normal in 2022, but having been homebodies for so long we were still flexing our dormant social muscles. In 2023 the weight of current events around the world is giving pause about what festivities feel right. Event planners say many festive parties this year are tending to be smaller in scale. There are those who are simply not in the mood, Some are saying, it’s become the year of the downsized Christmas.
In a world where we are inundated with messages that bigger is better, more expensive gifts show people how much we love them, we are going the other way. We are taking shortcuts, indulging in a bit of DIY, giving gifts that cost little to almost nothing and keeping things simple. But equally, those who work hard for a living might prefer to dial it in. In the end, it’s all about finding out what works for you. However you spend the holidays, the goal is always the same: creating a festive environment that makes you happy. There’s really no wrong or right way to celebrate.
Those who truly love Christmas – and do it really well – know that Christmas is an ongoing celebration, that starts at the beginning of December and ends early January.
We live in an age of unprecedented convenience, yet the cost of living is through the roof. This has led newspapers to report the most wonderful time of the year is fast become a luxury. With our guidelines, we hope to help you lighten your load on December 25, leaving you more time to be a fabulous host. Read more, ‘Time Tested Tips for a Stree-free Christmas.’
Here’s how to get things started and survive the final sprint towards Christmas with calm.
It doesn’t have to be complicated
So much drama is attached to contemporary Christmas, it is considered as one of the six most stressful life events, as we have been sold the belief of a picture-perfect day. We’re looking forward to it and we want it to be fun, but we’re concerned about the toll on our health, our home and our finances. For many, the upcoming holidays mark the most ambitious cooking and entertaining season of the year. A perfectly plump turkey. A glazed ham. Gooey lasagne, oozing cheese in a good kind of way. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep the food simple, generous and easy. The best hosts know you don’t have to be a great cook to be a great entertainer – some of the best parties are hosted by the worst cooks. Read more, ‘Christmas is the best time for entertaining.’
Prepping well ahead means less stress and greater savings
Buying festive food ahead of time gives peace of mind, and saves money; it helps us choose between where we’re going to splash out, and where we’re going to spend a bit more time and a bit less money. It’ll cost less as you won’t be buying overpriced last-minute options, and you’ll get the pick of the ingredients before they sell out. Your Christmas, your way, your budget. Read more, ‘A Guide To All Things Christmas.’
The big outlay might be on the turkey and ham. There’ll be no panic, well, less avoidable panic, let’s say.
Make a list of the whole Christmas lunch extravaganza – from the cocktails and canapes to the 35 parts of the meal itself – and work out what you can do without. You might be surprised. You also start to realise just how much of a task we set ourselves every year. Allow yourself to skip over somethings. No one will notice except for you. You can go without a lot of ‘necessary’ items, save time, hassle and most importantly, money. And no one will bat an eyelid. Read more, ‘The Broke Person’s Guide To Getting Christmas Ready.’
The Christmas meal items you should just buy ready-made
Take any shortcuts you can when preparing your Christmas feast. Your “seasonal sanity” may depend on cutting corners. Take advantage of all the high-quality, ready-made brandy butter, stuffing, bread sauce, and gravy. We’re all for a bit of light compromise in the spirit of Christmas calm.
Check out Aldi’s renowned Cranberry sauce which you can just heat and jazz up with a little orange zest and juice. No one will bat an eyelid. The choice is yours. Oh, and no one in their right mind is making Christmas puddings in 2023.
Don’t overdo it
Not just because few of us have enough fridge or freezer space to dedicate several square feet to events weeks away.
The reality is, plans change, extra people turn up, people drop out. Be prepared to flex.
The pros of buying and doing things in advance
You’ll be less stressed, so everyone else will be. Enjoy more time to join in with Christmas conversation. You get to be a Christmas Domestic Goddess (or God) and all the kudos that goes with that. You won’t be paying for overpriced last-minute options, and you’ll get the pick of the ingredients before they sell out. Read more, ‘Essential Christmas: A Last Minute Check-list.’
If you leave it to the last minute, you end up playing Supermarket Roulette; and you just can’t guarantee what will be left.
The party rules
Once a special season reserved for friends and family, Christmas now doubles as a panicked bandaid for relationships that are on life support. If we’ve spent the previous 11 months largely ignoring each other, save for the occasional clap emoji on an Instagram story, why must we rush to catch up before December 25?
This is meant to be when you switch off, the great winding down of December before you hit the promised land: between Christmas and New Year when time stands still.
Somewhere along the line, the true meaning of Christmas – spending time with people you love and eating until you hate yourself – has been lost and instead replaced by a pressure to stuff as many social occasions into one month as possible. Ultimately, make the most powerful feeling of this festive season one of joy. Not one of guilt. Do what you can, and forget the rest. While saying ‘no’ to holiday parties might seem like you’re a scrooge, researchers have found that declining unwanted invitations is good for your health and avoids holiday burnout. Read more, ‘Christmas Day Etiquette.’
Treat the Christmas feast like a Sunday roast, just on a larger scale. Don’t make canapes – and feel the need to assemble dainty nibbles just because it’s Christmas. A beautiful grazing board of cold things should do the trick. Charcuterie is really good as a nibble. A side of smoked salmon is a festive classic. Instead of a formal sit-down meal, create an instant buffet with an entire Christmas grazing board. Try slices of baked ham, salami and mortadella, tomatoes and burrata (creamy fresh cheese), a very big hunk of cheese and walnuts in the shell, bowls of dips, pickles, chilli sauces and mustards, roasted peppers in olive oil, terrines and pâtés, sardines and anchovies. It’s easy, adaptable and you can keep adding things all day if you get more guests than you bargained for. Just put it out and everyone enjoys it.
Take any shortcuts you can when preparing your Christmas feast; from ready-made biscuits to sauces and pies. Photo: Ottolenghi
Give yourself the gift of not having to peel and cut four sacks of potatoes. The whole point of Christmas is to be with your friends and family, not whether your potatoes are homemade. Most supermarkets do excellent frozen potato options that chefs swear by – and will save you time. The secret to fantastic roasties is not to crowd them, so tip the frozen spuds into a larger tin to roast. No turkey? Roast two chooks instead. Do big platters of roasted summer vegetables with white beans, and pomegranate-studded, lemon-drenched quinoa tabbouleh for those who don’t do meat or wheat.
Buy your gravy – even a supermarket version you can jazz up. That’s one of the things at the end where it’s all timed but then you’re messing around making a gravy. As always, an extra splosh of madeira or port for sweetness and a little Vegemite for depth.
Of all the elements of the Christmas feast which lend themselves to buying in, pudding is surely a no-brainer if for no other reason than because everyone should be too many sherries in by the time it rolls around to notice.
The fastest route to a “so good it must be homemade” cheat, is a good panettone that you can turn into the best bread and butter pudding. Make a quick custard and just bake that in the oven. It’s pretty good.
Try an ice-cream bomb, made with meringues, booze and cream. Just whip cream with icing sugar and some sort of Christmassy alcohol like brandy, then fold through shop-bought crumbled meringue, freeze it in a Pyrex bowl and turn it out. But anything homemade must be rich or glittering or both.
Buy the mince pies. We hear Aldi’s Belgian chocolate yule log is a wonderfully rich treat.
A few days before
Draw up a time plan for cooking the big meal. Arrange a drinks tray, and another of the wherewithal to lay the table for your Christmas meal (this makes it much easier to delegate). Decide what serving dish to use for each part of the menu – it saves rummaging and juggling when you’ve got lots of pans on the go. Take the stuffing and anything else that needs to defrost out of the freezer and put it in the fridge. Read more, ‘What Your Dinner Party Says About You.’
Accept things as they are
December 25 is about accepting things as they are, not as you wish them to be. Serve a good meal. Have a good time. Train your attention on what others are going through. It means you understand. That’s generally all people want.
We don’t talk too much about feelings here, but Christmas is a day that can be thick with them: judgy siblings, over-served cousins, ungrateful offspring; that silent stranger who arrived with your aunt and who might be her boyfriend, it’s hard to say. You are not going to change anyone’s mind or behaviour on Christmas day, and that’s all right. Put an ashtray out on the patio for Uncle Bertie.
Change is not what Christmas is about.
Christmas is about practicing radical empathy. Christmas is about acceptance of things as they are, not as you wish them to be. If you leave it to the last minute, you can play Supermarket Mark Down Roulette; yes, amongst the discounted goods towards the end of December are some last-minute festive bargains. You just can’t guarantee what will be left.
You’ll be doing everyone else a favour – a less stressed host makes for less stress overall. And if you’ve got a plan, then you can delegate. Those wide-eyed friends and family who wander into the kitchen saying “what can I do to help?” – use them. Plan the jobs that are good to hand over, like beating the brandy butter, or taking food you’ve already served onto trays to the table.
If you’re relaxed, everyone else will have a much better chance of relaxing too.
Setting a table for the holidays
There’s no need to spend a fortune on new stuff for table settings. Dig out all your favourite glassware and china. Include things with a story – the coffee pot you bought on your last trip to the French Riviera, your grandmother’s silver christening goblet, a Sheffield silver platter for drinks because that’s what your mother always used. Clean any actual silver and wrap it in plastic bags to keep it shiny. Check napkins, table linen and glassware and put them in your Christmas storage spot.
Don’t worry if there isn’t much space. The closer people are, the better the party.
The atmosphere – the visuals, the scent, the sounds, the taste, are all part of creating a memorable experience with loved ones. That’s why taking time to set a beautiful table can be rewarding for any holiday meal. Oh and we love fir, spruce or any greenery used on the dining table instead of bouquets; mixed with candles for a timeless theme.
A meal is about more than just food. It’s about sharing a good time together.
Crackers are encouraged to elevate the conversation. So you can spend less time arguing with your grandpa about the latest referendum, and more time exchanging factoids and telling some possibly bad, possibly fun jokes, while wearing paper crowns. The best Christmas cracker is the one that brings your Christmas table settings to life. Formal, funny, vintage, luxe or traditional, there are styles to suit all tastes and budgets and this year manufacturers have really upped their game. The best crackers, this year tend to be glitter-free, and the gifts inside them are no longer plastic rubbish, but things you can use. Best cracker gifts: L’Occitane
Decorative ideas to try
Adorn surfaces with flowers, candles, and greenery. Use locally grown flowers as much as possible – box, ivy, and holly mix well with apples, pomegranates and black grapes. There are no rules about which flowers to use, so choose ones you love and can afford and that work with your colour scheme. Fill huge jardinieres and wicker baskets with blooms. At the very least, aim to have flowers for the hall, the sitting room, the table, and the guest loo.
Dot mismatched jugs along your dining table and have them bursting with green and white parrot tulips, majestic white anemones and sparkling white hellebores. Weave candles in a variety of heights between flowers.
The best drinks to serve at every festive occasion
Keep it simple. Our best advice is not to try to offer too many options. Most people seem to stick to fizz so, if you’re offering it, go heavy on the sparkling wine order and minimal on the still reds and whites. For glassware, don’t fret about having the right glass for the right drink; Use stemless water glasses for almost everything – champagne, wine, beer, cocktails, softs – but gather whatever vessels you have to hand. For parties like these, it’s their contents – and the company – that matters most.
Order some all-round good-value bottles that work as house wines or to open for impromptu drinks when neighbours drop in; and a good Christmas red, and house white, to serve with festive food.
For those having a full-on family get together with lot of people in the house, some staying over, many arriving at different times, where you will be serving food at some point, stick to gin and tonics.
Sloe gin sours are also fun, but quite labour-intensive so this choice relies either on advance prep or, better, on child labour. Buy LOTS of lemons and get the children squeezing – they can then make citron presses for themselves (just a mix of lemon juice and water, fizzy or tap, sweetened with sugar) and any other non-drinkers at the party.
When entertaining the young, hipster crowd, the vibe here is firmly in the aperitif zone with fizz, cocktails, rosé and beer. For big bashes on a budget, you can still serve good-quality bubbles. There have never been so many impressive examples to pick from. There are tons of delicious sparkling wines around, so no one needs to be lured, by cut-price Christmas deals on labels you’ve never heard of, into buying an insipid and distinctly average drink.
Take a look at Aldi’s options. Don’t buy champagne for the sake of it.
The secret behind food styling
Make it look aspirational but approachable. If things look too perfect, your guests might be too intimidated to have fun. Everybody should feel welcome.
Be careful not to over-promise on a Christmas invitation. Even if you have a real-life Santa planned, it’s important to save it for the big reveal.
Take your cue from the host
Possibly the most important rule for guests – whatever you do, is don’t bring your own traditions to another person’s house. You have to go by the law of whoever’s house you’r staying in – whether thats another family or new in-laws. Don’t repel new inlaws with your own traditions.
Christmas day thank yous
Gratitude is paramount.
When the best gift costs nothing at all
Presents are small fry compared to the hot topic of the lunch, but as people deal with the pressure of finding the perfect gift for their loved ones, many gifters respond by throwing money at the challenge. People overestimate the correlation between a gift’s monetary value and its emotional impact. This year consider gifts that cost little, you create from scratch, conveying thoughtfulness and care and appreciation. A personalized walking tour or hike, teaching someone a skill they’ve expressed interest in. Such presents also tend to generate less physical and financial waste – another concern this season — than material gifts. Some of the best gifts draw on shared interests. Perhaps the best-known example of such a gift is the New York Times game Wordle, which was created as a present by a software engineer for his partner, but ended up being a gift to millions of others. Curate a Spotify playlist, share favourite recipes, give a wonderful piece from your collections, or a classic book from your library.
One year, my daughter wrote me a memory book, outlining treasured memories. It cost nearly nothing to create, and it was so unique no price could be placed on it.
A peek at what we’re giving
If you’ve procrastinated on holiday shopping and gifting. you’re not alone. And you are definitely not doomed. We’re sending the one thing that has not increased in price this year. Books – for everyone from family to BFFs to neighbours to new friends – that can be delivered straight to their doorstep in about two days. Or sent to their inbox in seconds. Christmas goodies such as games, toys and hobbies are much more expensive than previous years, but books remain a good buy. They are also something that will endure in people’s lives.
We are choosing books as our number ONE gift that year, as they have not increased in price – and are something that will endure.
If you live in Australia, it’s peak stone fruit season and there’s some good news here. Fresh fruit prices have gone slightly backwards, so give a box of quality cherries, mangoes, nectarines or peaches Another top gift? Scanpan Black Iron Fry Pans and TechnIQ 22cm Moder non-stick Skillets, the best tools we’ve found for cooking steaks as well as fluffy omelettes and delicate fish fillets that will bring lasting pleasure.