Family Christmas tips from India Knight

Comfort and Joy book jacketTo celebrate her Christmas-themed novel, Comfort and Joy, Times columnist India Knight joined us for a festive Q&A in November 2011. 

An expert on all things celebration, India answered your questions on pulling off a thrifty Christmas, keeping both parents and children happy, and navigating the perilous waters of large family gatherings.

Q. Sleepevader: I have a newborn baby and am dreading the whole Christmas thing. I want to make it special for my four year old though. Any tips on how to cope with a newborn, shopping, cooking and entertaining guests, while trying to get to grips with a newborn and breastfeeding?

A. India: Sympathies - I remember when my boys were one month old and barely three during one Christmas, plus my c-section scar was still really uncomfortable. The thing is to massively delegate. I don't know what you're like, but I had some weird compulsion to turn into Superwoman and look like I was taking it all in my stride, plus I'm the sort of person who thinks that if you want something done properly it's always best to do it yourself.

However, this is mad. You're knackered. Nobody expects you to be anything other than knackered, and being knackered is not a badge of honour - it's just a bit crap. So yes - delegate. If you've missed the supermarkets delivery slots (me too), get a friend or relative to do the shopping for you. It's hard to give specific advice without knowing what kind of Christmas you usually have - if it's you, your partner and your children, then you're fine: just do what you normally do but in slow motion and possibly pyjamas. But your mention of guests makes me think this isn't the case.

India KnightSo: send an email out now to everyone who's coming asking them to do/bring a particular thing - can be anything from cooking the turkey to bringing the drinks to peeling the veg to laying the table, etc.

I still do this - we're around 20 on the day - and my children are now mostly enormous. People like being asked to help, especially in-laws, I find - it makes them feel like they have a purpose, plus the 'all in it together', communal spirit-ness of the thing can be quite joyous.

So you've basically got the shopping and cooking mostly covered; I'm sure the guests will have a lovely time.

The main thing, I would say, is the four year old. Your email might contain a line about how it's his/her first Christmas with a sibling and how you'd like everyone to make a particular effort with his/her present and the levels of attention he/she receives. I'd also get him/her an especially fantastic present, and a pretty fantastic present from the new baby. I find new babies giving existing siblings impressive presents starts things off on the right footing. I remember when my newborn son gave his older brother an Early Learning Centre tool kit when he came to visit us in hospital - this assured at least three weeks of extreme goodwill.

It'll all be lovely. The thing to remember as you sit there exhausted and leaking from the bosoms is that Christmas isn't about being an impressive hostess who's found everyone incredible gifts - it's about being in a room with people you love and basking in the cosy glow. Also, sometimes the most chaotic-seeming Christmases (rather like parties) are the best and most memorable. Happy Christmas to you, and congrats on the baby. 

Q. Lilibet: I'm 48, I did my first Christmas dinner in 1983; in 2011 after doing 27 more (I've had one year off for good behaviour!) it's not that I'm heartily sick and fed up of it, it's just that there's nothing to be excited about anymore.

My children are 23, 18 and 15 and my 84-year-old mum will be with us. I have tried to suggest changes to the daily routine, but they are having none of it: we get up, open presents, go and collect mum, go to church, go to a friends for gin a present exchange, come home, have sandwiches, laze about, get the meal ready and eat about 6pm. My husband's parents pop round sometime in the day.

I want the day to be wonderful, I realise that each Christmas may be my mum's last and that soon the children will have their own homes and I am aware that each year could be our last all sat together round my dining table.

How can you inject magic into something that has happened so often?

A. India: Superficially tricky, this one. But I think the clue is in you saying you've tried suggesting changes and they aren't having any of it. What feels dull and repetitive to you feels like the definition of Christmas to them, is the thing. It's funny how even quite grown-up people - ie your children - find intense comfort in the familiar patterns and routines of the day. I'm the same, and I'm 45. On Christmas Day I don't want diamonds in boxes from Tiffany - I want my turkey and my mummy (obviously the diamonds wouldn't go entirely amiss, but you know what I mean). So, in answer to your question, the day WILL be wonderful - it's just that you may not necessarily be aware of it. It's like some cheesy film where the magic was right under the protagonist's nose all along. But you have to wake up and appreciate it, because as you say the picture will shift one day.

The elderly parent thing is slightly more complicated, but aside from calibrating the day to her needs - hunkering down on the sofa with a film she especially likes, making sure you have her favourite drink in (I'm sure you do this anyway), the same principle applies: sometimes just being in the room with people who you love and who love you is enough.

I hope you have a lovely day. From what you've said, it sounds like you do a brilliant job of Christmas and that nobody would have it any other way. 

Q. BecauseImworthit: I enjoyed reading Comfort & Joy, and I wondered how much it reflected your own family life?

I love Christmas, and the whole build-up to it. What I don't enjoy is all the travelling and having to visit the family all over the country. Not that I don't love seeing them, just can't bear always being on the road, often in bad weather, when I'd like to be in my own house, on my own sofa, watching my own telly and in my own bed.

A. India: Thank you! It's about a third autobiographical and two-thirds invented - though the autobiographical bits aren't necessarily Clara - there's a bit of me in most of the characters.

"I spent years whizzing up and down the country, I'm afraid the only solution is to host Christmas yourself. You may splatter your dress every time you baste the turkey and you may not be able to figure out how to ram everyone into your tiny kitchen but at least you're not sitting on some bleak motorway."

I also spent years whizzing up and down the country - it used to do my head in. I'm afraid the only solution to this is to host Christmas yourself. You may splatter your dress every time you baste the turkey and you may not be able to figure out how to ram everyone into your tiny kitchen (I speak subjectively here, and the answer is usually trestle tables), but at least you're not sitting on some bleak motorway. And you're in your house, with your sofa and your telly and your tree.

If this is also a question about step-families, where getting everyone around the table is for various reasons not entirely feasible, get the bulk of your relatives round and go and visit the ones who can't make it at some point before New Year. 

Q. gazzalw: We love Christmas but because money is tighter we need to do it on a budget - what would be your advice about what to miss out/what to include and any suggestions for thriftiness with food/decorations and pressies. PS Wife has just read your article in Red magazine this month and loves the very positive vibes your home seems to give off!

A. India: Thanks very much re my house, which is a lot less photogenic when it's colonised by gigantic teenage boys with enormous feet, which is every day.

I'm quite hardcore about the thriftness thing. This is what I do - your mileage may vary but I hope it's useful:

  • Give the most hard-up person in the room the nicest (as in most lavish) present
  • Give the relatively well-off people small tokens, usually home-made and usually food-related
  • If really broke, give everyone actual tokens, also homemade, saying things like "this token is good for three nights' babysitting" or "this token is good for painting your basement" or whatever
  • Band together with other relatives to give one big present to older children, rather than endless DVDs and iTunes vouchers (pointless because they download stuff for free anyway)
  • You can also agree not to do presents for adult relatives/guests - frankly, in the current climate, everyone's likely to be relieved rather than hurt by this suggestion
  • But if you're going to buy presents, ask people what they'd like - this is unromantic but it means people get stuff they actually want (set a price limit)
  • Food-wise, get people to bring things - you buy the turkey, they provide the rest
  • Drink-wise, all of the supermarkets have heavily discounted, own-brand and usually excellent (though do some research via Google) fizzy wine, or make mulled wine (although it gives the most terrible hangovers) or mulled cider, delicious and cheapest of all, even if you think you don't like cider
  • Decorations: I don't spend anything because I use the ones we've had since the children were tiny - I personally find this really pleasing and I think they do too - the robin they made in nursery still perched on the tree, and so on

Q. Aristocat: My children know that there is no <whispers> Father Christmas this year so how can I still make it special for them? My son is nine, my daughter is seven.

"Father Christmas is a bit like God, some people believe and some don't. I think once children get over the shock of realising that you're the stocking-filler, they adjust very quickly and still absolutely love everything about Christmas."

A. India: Did they discover this tragic fact this year? My daughter is seven and has strong suspicions (thanks, friend from school) but I've said Father Christmas is a bit like God, some people believe and some don't. Don't think I'm going to be able to sustain this for much longer, but anyway. I think once children get over the shock of realising that you're the stocking-filler, they adjust very quickly and still absolutely love everything about Christmas.

(As if by magic, my 19 year old has just appeared and confirms that yes, dreadful shock, but you get over it - and that if I was ever thinking of stopping the stockings, I need to realise that this must never happen.) So carry on as before, is my advice. Stockings, mince pie on a plate and carrots for Rudolph (maybe say something like "just in case"), the whole shebang.

I think the worry for children is that knowing about FC will somehow alter the whole of Christmas - you need to show them that it won't. 

Q. Mammonite: Our family (both mine and the in-laws) are still exchanging presents between adults and I don't think we're ever going to get to the point of a secret santa, no-presents-for-adults or sponsor-a-goat.

So what are your cast-iron ideas for gifts for non-alcohol drinking couples in their 40s to 70s, who do not have exotic tastes, or read much fiction? I'm not sure we can do mini-hamper for the third year running. The quantity of novelty tins of biscuits, acrylic scarfs and celebrity biographies circulating around the Xmas tree is excruciating. Also we have building work going on this year and no time for anything time-consuming or homemade.

A. India: Poo, what a pain they don't read - books are so useful in this situation (and I hear ya re celebrity biogs). My two fail-proof presents are normally a) BabyLiss BigHair - delivers a salon blowdry even if you're really clumsy or have 'difficult' hair - a life-changing bit of kit unless you're bald, and b) a LuckyVoice home karaoke machine.

However, they're respectively £40 (roughly) and £50 so it's not like you can bulk-buy for everyone, plus I sometimes worry that not everyone shares my love of karaoke. There's also c), which is that Kenwood have this year made kettles, coffee makers etc in a really fantastic selection of colours - they're absolutely beautiful and not wildly expensive considering the price of similar branded stuff (the range is called Kenwood Boutique and Amazon has it all).

Failing this, I think you might have to go down the 'homemade but not homemade' route, via superior crafts sites such as Etsy and BigCartel (there are lots of others). You need to be fairly specific about what search criteria you enter, otherwise you get lost in there for hours - but as a source of original, well-made, affordable presents, it's hard to beat. 

Q. Bubblebathgirl: My Christmas issue is I'm very working class (think pork pie and chocolate for breakfast Christmas Day), while my husband and his family are not (they have warm croissants and champagne for Christmas day breakfast).

I really want to teach my daughter to be a bit more northern and embrace the opportunity to make my husband and his family cringe when she enjoys dripping on bread. Help please!

A. India: Well, it's the right time of year for it. Christmas is about cheerfulness and tinsel and the Argos catalogue, not about exquisite good taste (I'm suspicious about exquisite good taste). I think you absolutely should introduce your daughter to the joys of chocolate for breakfast and dripping on toast - aside from the fact that both are delicious, there's nothing worse than food snobbery. Food either tastes good or it doesn't, and class really shouldn't come into it. You never know, your in-laws might even learn something. 

Q. Daveschooks: We have the same choice of UK summer hols so I'm hoping we will have some synchronicity on Christmas. How do we deal with elderly relatives who struggle with joy at any time of the year, but particularly at Christmas? One in particular is alone and must be collected and returned on the day, so we can't even use alcohol as a cosh for ourselves!

"We're so used to old people having to fall in with what younger people are doing that sometimes it's quite nice to flip it around for a while."

A. India: So difficult. I do think that just being in a room where they feel loved and wanted cheers even the most grumpy curmudgeon, even if they don't show it much. If absolutely all else fails, you could sort of theme part of the day around them, or around their memories of more youthful Christmases, most easily through the medium of old movies and/or music. We're so used to old people having to fall in with what younger people are doing that sometimes it's quite nice to flip it around for a while.

NB You need to prime your children not to howl with laughter at the strangulated accents if you're watching old British movies. Good luck! 

Q. Sidalee7: Can you share any tips to get through the first crap Christmas after splitting up, while making it amazing and magical for the children?

A. India: So been there, more than once. Dissemble, is the only answer. Put in an Oscar-winning performance of cheerfulness and enthusiasm. You don't say how old your children are but they will take their cue from you and from your emotional state, so just act your socks off. I don't know if the ex is likely to make an appearance at some point, or if he's their dad - but if he does, the answer again is to be almost inhumanly cheerful. Avoid silences and pointed looks like the plague - now's really not the time.

Re. amazing and magical: this is obviously completely subjective but I've found that the really important thing is not to make children feel their family unit has been fatally disrupted, which in my experience means ramping up the family stuff you do. Even if it's stuff you've never done before.

"It's Christmas Day, you've got presents, you've got a turkey, you're together with your kids - you love them and they love you - it'll be fine, I promise."

It's all little things, like cooking together, or hunkering down on the sofa with a family movie, or playing old-school board games. You want to make them think: "Things are fine, we're a unit."  I think the problems start occurring when you convey the sense that you're a unit with a part missing, which communicates itself to children, which makes them feel unhappy and anxious.

It's very easy to give kids the impression that you're emotionally somewhere else, and I'd say that that's the one thing to avoid. If you manage that, then you're winning. It's Christmas Day, you've got presents, you've got a turkey, you're together with your kids, you love them and they love you - it'll be fine, I promise. 

Q. CeliaFate: How do you get the right balance between traditionally homemade Christmas and knackered, frazzled woman on the edge?

A. India: Alcohol (joke) (kind of). And the knowledge that it's the same for women all over the country, that it's only one day and that if you relax and hold on to your wine glass, it can be the best day of the year.

Last updated: over 1 year ago