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Nina Stibbe's Top Tips on Surviving Christmas with the Family

Posted on 1st December 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Christmas. A time of festivity, feasting, fa-la-la and, of course, your beloved friends and family. Thankfully, If you find all that quality time with loved ones is making the goodwill run a little thin, then help is on hand from Nina Stibbe, the author of the bestselling Love, Ninain the form of her witty, wise and downright hilarious new book An Almost Perfect Christmas.

As an added bonus, especially for Waterstones (she knows we get grumpy at this time of year), she’s rustled up some essential advice for getting through the season without losing your Christmas cheer. We’re off now to stock up on cheese and thermal socks…

Some people think there’s no better way to enjoy the festive season than to pack up a few winter woollies and throw yourself at the mercy of friends or family. Having spent more than my fair share of Christmases ‘away’ over the years, I have learnt that a little forward planning is required in order to maximize joy and minimize fuss. So, let me now offer you some tried and tested techniques for being the perfect, trouble-free Christmas guest.  

1. Food.

It is a stressful and chaotic time for your hosts and that means fallow periods are inevitable - either because the dinner is delayed due to incompetence, oven timing mix-ups or because you were seen having muesli and a croissant at breakfast and your host assumes you’re not going to need lunch. So, in order to avoid headaches, temper tantrums and stomach gripes you’ll need emergency snacks. 

It’s no good hoping snacks will be provided, because they won’t. And even if they’re available, they will not be easy to find. You can’t just ask for a bun or a crumpet because your hosts are up to their necks in goose fat and brandy. You have to be self-sufficient, snack-wise, and arrive with your own stash.

Here’s what to take: a wedge of cheddar and some Jacob’s Cream crackers. Two packs of Warburton’s teacakes, a supermarket Yule log and as many Tracker bars as you can fit into your suitcase. Your host might be a bit taken aback when you unload all this but it’s a price worth paying when, less than 24 hours later, one of those Warburton’s has literally saved your life.

2. Telly

Face it. It is unlikely that you’ll get to see any decent Christmas telly. All the brilliant stuff you’d definitely have seen had you been allowed to stay at home, will be on at the same time as When Christmas Trees Kill – your host’s favourite - or when someone insists on playing Bait the Weakling (because they do it every year at that time). But, you can at least try to seize the agenda. The first thing to do upon arrival at the friend or relative’s home is to locate the Radio Times (it’s often down the side of the host’s Parker Knoll) tell your host it’s imperative you have a shower immediately and take the Radio Times into the bathroom with you. Once there, work out your host’s marking up system*. If s/he hasn’t flagged your programmes (say Call the Midwife), take out your highlighters and simply do it for them.  *In my experience, yellow usually means unmissable. Pink usually means record. Replace the magazine and, later on, pick it up and casually mention all the exciting viewing s/he has planned. 

3. Central heating

The climate will be your biggest challenge. Your host’s home might be too cold. It might be too hot. It will certainly not be just right and so you must pack for extreme scenarios. It’s no good assuming it’ll be snuggly inside, by the fire and cold and crisp outside, that’s just on Christmas cards. Take thermals, socks, a good overcoat, and the bizarre tropical outfits you bought for your trip to Sri Lanka. Also a few rolls of bubble wrap.

Don’t assume the conditions on a previous visit to this house will prevail. Your relative or friend might have suddenly ‘gone the other way’ either to overcompensate after complaints or just to mess with you.

It’s possible that you’ll find yourself freezing underneath a flimsy duvet - like at my sister’s house, where you can see your breath and your body partially shuts down. In this case you pop on your thermals and keep moving. Find an old rug or tarpaulin to throw over your bed, remember the thing about body heat and pompom hats, and if necessary have the dog in with you. 

More likely though, and much more difficult to survive, is the HOT house, in which the central heating is up so high your eyeballs dry out - like old roll-on deodorant balls - and it’s almost impossible to remain conscious. These conditions call for drastic action.

Do NOT under any circumstances tell your host you’re finding it a bit too hot. I guarantee any mention of it will only make matters worse - alerting your host to, and putting a stop to, possible tinkering with the thermostat. In fact, the best thing to do is wear a cardigan and hold your elbows – and appear a bit chilly. This will throw the host off the scent. Then, you can open a few windows - but just a crack - so they don't notice. Then, repeatedly, slightly lower the thermostat. But take great care not to be seen. If there are children around, bribe them with sweets to work with you. And, if teenagers, bribe them with cigarettes or money. If all fails, appear at tea wearing your swimming costume. And when your hosts object or call the police tell them you'll put your trousers back on if they turn the f***ing heating down.  

Finally, if at any point you end up leaving in a hurry, remember to take your Warburton’s and cheese with you.

Good luck and merry Christmas. Love, Nina xx

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