Words: Emma Howarth
When I was a teenager I used to babysit in the Christmas holidays for a wealthy family with a tree adorned with tasteful white fairylights and one of those garlands of festive foliage cascading down the stairs. The lady of the house was always dressed to the nines and over-generous after a few too many sherries. The children trotted off to bed like well-trained angels. I was left to my own devices, which in the days before Netflix and WiFi generally meant flicking through a pile of magazines left out on the coffee table.
The rest of the year, I’d have spent my time plotting my future high fashion wardrobe in the pages of Vogue but at Christmas it was all about Good Housekeeping. More specifically the annual Good Housekeeping Christmas Day Timetable detailing all the things a good hostess should prepare in advance in order to get the canapés out at 1.30pm, followed by the starters at bang on 2pm.
I became obsessed: it all sounded so grown-up, so ordered, so easy to pull off with adherence to just 57 simple steps and a pre-prep plan that started in October. I found myself casually wondering why my mum didn’t subscribe to this fountain of adult knowledge and if we should be upgrading our packet bread sauce to something more ‘luxurious’. Somewhere in the back of my as yet unformed, illogical 15-year-old mind I kind of imagined that one day I might become Good Housekeeping woman, pulling a tray of homemade blinis from my expensive double oven at exactly 1.15pm and wiping my hands on a neat little apron before taking a sip of champagne.
Well, 15-year-olds know NOTHING and 20-plus years and two kids on from my babysitting days I am yet to host anything more complicated than a shonky Mexican fiesta with centrepiece margaritas. The babysitters who show up at my house during the festive season are lucky if there’s any milk in the fridge. And I don’t subscribe to Good Housekeeping. But after seven years at the coal face of festive parenting, I do know how the average yuletide timetable works. And that even if you do start in October, you’ll still be sticking sequins on jars filled with sweets in December and knocking back mulled wine like it’s medicine. Let’s see how it pans out.
Sometime in October
Idly flick through an old copy of Living Etc at the dentist and decide that a nature-inspired theme with statement Scandi tree decorations will work perfectly with the soon-to-be freshly sanded floorboards in the living room.
Casually ask kids what they are planning to ask for in their letters to Father Christmas. Inform them in no uncertain terms that Father C does not do electrical items, livestock or trips to DisneyWorld. Google ‘Fingerlings Monkeys’. Discover they are a) ridiculous and b) already f-ing sold out.
Five Weeks Ahead
Remove entire contents of bank account in ten pound notes. Distribute among the collection envelopes behind the school secretary’s desk. Get reminded that tomorrow is the jolly jam jar deadline by a woman carrying a Pinterest Rudolph masterpiece with a light-up nose. Spend evening sprinkling glitter on a jar with a lingering whiff of pickled onions. Ask the builders if there’s any chance they’ll get started on those floorboards this week. Refuse a mince pie because it’s too damned early. Accept mulled wine because it’s wine.
Four Weeks To Go
Explain (x300) why opening all 24 doors on an advent calendar in one go is not the done thing. Explain that some houses just don’t come with a bloody elf on a shelf. Google nativity costumes. Get distracted by last posting dates. Panic order a rainbow unicorn tape dispenser and the contents of Smiggle. Spend £87.50 on Absolutely Nothing at the school Christmas Fair. Make mental note to teach children the concept of CHANGE. Win a Terry’s Chocolate Orange on the tombola. Get a tip off about Ocado delivery slots. Amuse yourself by sticking four magnums of champagne in your basket to secure said slot.
Three Weeks To Go
Attend Christmas lights switch on in the rain. Drown sorrows. Watch John Lewis ad in an effort to locate festive spirit. Don’t let kids watch it in case they decide they want their own giant monster. Package up 12 Amazon fails and queue for an hour in the post office. Kind of enjoy the break. Attend parent drinks #1. Watch two ballet recitals and a rugby match (more rain). Buy aspirational wrapping paper and ribbons for gifts that do not yet exist. Google last posting dates again. Put anyone who sends you a Christmas card straight on your black list. Buy Christmas tree. Let a stroppy five-year-old choose the fairylights to avert a tantrum in Tesco’s. Wave goodbye to chic Scandi décor dreams. Work late. Again.
Two Weeks To Go
Parent drinks #2. Two day hangover. Weep at carol concert (mostly due to hangover). Swerve the church collection plate because all your cash is in envelopes behind the school secretary’s desk. Develop a special look of distain for people who ask if ‘you’re all ready for Christmas’. Develop an even more disdainful one for people who tell you they bought a Fingerlings Monkey in October because they ‘had a hunch they’d be popular’. Pop out for milk. Return to find six ‘While You Were Out’ delivery notes. Watch Elf. Crack open the Quality Street. Tell the builders to forget the damned floor.
One Week To Go
Post desperate message on Facebook asking if anyone has a donkey costume you can borrow for tomorrow. Work drinks. Overdose on Berocca. Hear a rumour about a spontaneous Christmas Jumper Day at school. Send What’s App to entire class detailing the pitfalls of spontaneity in bullet points. Hit up John Lewis in lunch break. Buy all the things. Miss last posting date. Send everything special delivery. Post smug message on Facebook saying you’re donating to charity instead of sending Christmas cards this year. Forget to actually donate to charity. Contemplate buying panto tickets. Go ice-skating in the rain. Log in to Ocado.
Ocado delivery. No cranberry sauce, 11 (?) pots of brandy butter, four magnums of uncancelled champagne. Festive stroll, festive cheese on toast for lunch, festive carols at the pub. Photo of children looking adorable in matching pyjamas ruined by tacky flashing tree. Read The Night Before Christmas, leave Santa a mince pie and a G&T. Tell husband he is in for one hell of a night of festive fun. Give him his own tape dispenser. Finish wrapping at 1am. Knock over half drunk magnum of champagne.
The Big Day
5am: Tell children to go back to sleep.
5.15am: Beg children to stop bouncing on your bed.
5.20am: Relent and let them open their stockings.
6am: Serve breakfast of festive Cheerios.
7am: Watch the little angels open their first presents with genuinely heart-warming smiles of delight and appreciation.
7.03am: Watch chaos descend as they cotton on to the true bounty on offer here. Neck espressos as they begin to tear open packages like feral beasts, shouting ‘next’ as they chuck carefully chosen gifts aside.
7.43am: Finally manage to free first heart-warming-smile-inducing gift from excessive packaging. Batteries not included.
7.45am: Crack open the Buck’s Fizz
8am: Put the TV on and think about peeling potatoes.
8.30am: Quick lie down on the sofa.
9.30am: Put the turkey in, peel potatoes, wonder what possessed you to think it’d be nice to make it all from scratch this year. Eye complicated sprout recipe involving a griddle pan, lardons and seven different herbs with the suspicion it deserves.
10am: Break up a fight over a Lego Stormtrooper.
11am: Children claim to be STARVING. Feed them Babybels, crisps and Quality Street.
12pm: Decide the salmon blinis should be served with DIY assembly and a champagne chaser.
1pm: Turkey showing no signs up being cooked. Whack the oven up a bit.
2pm: Decide to devote the next hour to child-led joyful play. Lose the will to live after fifteen minutes.
3pm: Set table, pull crackers, spill gravy down top, present slightly charred bird to half-hearted applause.
3.15pm: “Just try one… two more mouthfuls… there’ll be no pudding… it’s nice honest… it’s just like a big chicken… go on JUST TRY IT.”
3.20pm: Dish out a round of festive bananas.
4pm: The Best Bit. Charades, festive TV, the warm glow of red wine, exhausted children look like they might even nod off.
4.15pm: Bit peckish.
4.30pm: Cheeseboard, pickled items, entire tube of Twiglets.
5pm: Initiate bedtime fast-forward programme using eye rolls and hand gestures.
6pm: “Yes darlings, it’s 7 o’ clock. Off you go to sleep. What a lovely day. Aren’t we lucky. Yes, you must have been a very good girl. Now S L E E P.”
6.30pm: Ahhh, don’t you just love them so much when they’re asleep.
7pm: Peace on earth and good will to all men.
7.30pm: Bit peckish.