Planning, planning, planning. Be in no doubt, Christmas is a military campaign and the best generals must be engaged early on. Food provides the centrepiece of every entertainment and the Christmas feast can, and should, be a glorious treat. To provide the finest fare, however, extra provisions must be made early on. Nor should we be afraid to sample the new. My cook tells me that it is now all the rage to include a turkey along with the traditional goose and bee f, and that the poor birds begin their journey from Norfolk as early as October, their feet clad in tiny leather boots. I have heard it said that Her Majesty has chosen to dine on roast swan in the past, although, if this is true, she alone may enjoy that privilege.
We are constantly told that Christmas is a time for families and it is the duty of a good hostess to provide a welcome to all who may have a claim on her hospitality but even though this is a gloomy prospect it is worth remembering that the presence of even the most tedious relation may be ameliorated by a timely glass of champagne.
Unlike some, I support the custom of decorating a house for the festive season but always remember your house is a home, and not some lurid theatrical backdrop. My advice is to eschew tinsel and painted paper in favour of evergreens, mistletoe, holly, ivy, all of which will provide a warm and welcoming setting. Painting entire walls with a festive scene, which is often done these days, is both gaudy and unnecessary. The Duchess of Bedford – always one for the latest fashions – tells me that Prince Albert has revived the custom favoured by the Dowager Queen Adelaide of a fir tree, hung with baubles and bright with lighted candles, as part of the Christmas tableau. She assures me that soon all the best households in London will follow suit. We shall see. Whilst I have no doubt that this detail may lend a certain charm to the Christmas festivities, I fear that her Majesty’s beloved dogs, Nero and Hector, may find it a little too tempting. Nor do I envy the footmen or the housemaids who must clean up the fallen needles before the sun sets on the twelfth night.
There is nothing more likely to spoil the day than boredom and, as I have said, it is the duty of the hostess to welcome all family members, no matter how tiresome. I like to surround myself with the joy and energy of the young and it is a matter of honour that they should outnumber the old by at least two to one to keep things merry. It must, after all, be admitted that the richness of the Christmas menu can lead to a slight dwindling of one’s energies. Lord Brockenhurst enjoys contemplating the scene with his eyes firmly shut and the occasional snore, although he assures me that his alertness never wavers. This may just possibly be true but it does mean that games like Pass the Slipper, Lookabout, Blindman’s Wand and Forfeits are definitely needed to provide a welcome distraction. Charades is of course a perennial favourite. It takes up happy hours as the little groups must learn their lines and practice in their parts. I shall never forget the Duke of Bedford playing the leading role in The Voyage of the Beagle. Let us only say it had to be seen to be believed.
Finally, servants form the backbone of every household and there would be no Christmas without their valiant efforts. Efficiency and loyalty cannot be bought; they can, however, be rewarded and therefore it is our duty to ensure that the staff also enjoy good food, a reasonable amount of time off and that on the following morning, they are presented with a Christmas box worthy of their service. We have adopted the custom of a buffet lunch for ourselves to allow them to enjoy their feast downstairs, so they may be ready to provide our delights later on, that same evening. The plain fact is, they are never more necessary to our comfort than at Christmas, not least because you cannot know when you might need to call upon their services to eject a troublesome carol singer. Or cousin. Or both.