This time of year, newspapers and online portals are overflowing with well-intentioned seasonal advice about getting ready for Christmas. The trouble is, the vast majority of it really isn’t very helpful. Flavoured butters, frozen-ahead canapes and pre-mixed cocktails are all very well, but not if you never planned to do any of that in the first place.
And herein lies the problem: the little things add up, to the point where expectation and pressure mount and the whole operation becomes an ordeal. Spare a thought for the woman who, a couple years ago, was spotted in the local speciality foods store, sobbing between the Panettone and the duck pâté.
We’ve all had our moments around the festive period; hers just happened to be in Remark. This woman now occupies something of a legend status in my family: known colloquially as the Proverbial Woman Crying in Remark (PWCIR).
We’ve all been the PWCIR. When your partner brings back two parsnips when you’ve got ten people coming to eat, or a helpful guest drops a whole carton of milk on the kitchen floor while industriously making themselves a cup of tea, or perhaps there just aren’t any gold Christmas crackers available. (There just AREN’T.) It’s easy to feel overcome.
So I’m here to tell you how to prepare, no matter what you’re cooking, and in a way that is meaningful and genuinely productive. No instructions to start steeping dried fruit in January, thank-you-very-much.
The most important thing I’ve come to appreciate about Christmas planning is that it really is a lot of work. Even if you let the shops do a lot of the cooking for you, or you’ve delegated tasks to every guest making an appearance, Christmas Day remains a huge undertaking. The first stage is acceptance.
To avoid feelings brought on by panic and exhaustion (see above, re: PWCIR), you must do one thing: tackle Christmas like a project manager.
This isn’t about superwoman-level control freakery, but rather, quite the opposite. Good project management is about time management, delegation, and foreseeing problems and getting ahead of them. No matter what stage of Christmas preparation you are in (stage 0, or full-on Christmas Eve crunch time), this advice holds, and I promise it will make your life easier.
Sit down and realistically assess how long everything is going to take. Not just the cooking, but present wrapping, card writing, wine selection, cleaning, ironing, table setting, etc. Then set out corresponding blocks of time in which to complete them, and stick to it. Take a ruthless approach: if it’s not complete in the allotted time, it just isn’t happening. I find this merciless line-drawing liberating, and strangely motivating. Yes, a few presents may look a bit more slap-dash than you’d like, but to me that’s infinitely preferable to slaving over paper and ribbon at 1am.
Plan and Conquer
Find a quiet moment and plan out all the major meals (and entertaining nibbles) you intend to feed people over the festive period, right down to quantities. It takes a little while to dig out your recipes and tally everything up, but you’ll have to do it at some point and it’s much faster to do them all at the same time. It’s also worth mentioning you’re far less likely to forget to add something to the list when you’ve gone through and methodically listed everything out in a moment of relative calm, rather than trying to remember everything five minutes before you leave for the shops.
Once you’ve got your master list, break it down into two: one fresh and one non, or less-perishable. Attack the shopping in two trips, one a fortnight or so before Christmas for all the longer-life stuff (I include root vegetables and cheese, here) and the other two or three days before the big day.
Design your lists by category. List all the vegetables and fruit together, all the dairy in another column, etc. This considerably speeds up the shopping experience.
The Art of Delegation
You are not a one man band. Everyone can, and should, contribute to Christmas, and it’s your job to dole out the suitable tasks. Be realistic; don’t ask your cousin who’s never cooked to bring the appetizers, and don’t request the sleepy teenager join the 7am queue at the butcher’s. Play to everyone’s strengths, and if you can’t think of a strength, well, anyone can peel potatoes.
When you give instructions, be specific about deliverables and timeframes. (Yes, you will sound incredibly bossy, but that’s how things get done.) And once you’ve delegated something, just let that person get on with it. Provide instruction, demonstration, materials, and/or supervision, but once you’ve delegated, do not interfere, and just let them deliver. Even the least effective family members are surprisingly competent when left to their own devices.
At the end of the day, the planning, lists and coordination are just the infrastructure for an enjoyable Christmas. It’s about finding the time and space to get a grip on what needs to be done, to have the kind of Christmas celebration you want.
Don’t let the pressures and demands of the festive period take away from what is ultimately a time of joy and celebration with the people you love most. I just hope the PWCIR ended up having a great Christmas.