'twas the nightmare before xmas ...

Haunted by the ghost of Christmas past? Hester Lacey hears of one woman's frightful festivities, and asks the experts how she can make this a merry one

last Christmas was enough to make me want to convert, to anything but Christianity," remembers Natalie, 33. "It was the first time we'd really gone for the whole family thing: my husband's parents, my parents, plus our two children - Marcus and Maria, aged seven and one. Everything began to go completely pear-shaped when the shopping started. He heroically said he'd get the meat. It took him all day to come up with a turkey and a joint of beef for Boxing Day; meanwhile I was elbowing my way around the scrum that was Sainsbury's. I forgot the chestnuts (Delia's stuffing) and the parmesan (Delia's parsnips): likewise the ham, because I naively thought that would come under the "meat" heading. So, back out to Sainsbury's, cursing, on Christmas Eve, leaving the sets of parents at home eyeing each other suspiciously over thimblefuls of sherry. Got back to realise I'd forgotten the dates and tangerines. Not that there was anything I could do about it, because the cashpoint was refusing my card by then . I had had the brilliant idea of having a big communal present-wrapping session on Christmas Eve, to get us all into the spirit of things; my two whopper packs of wrapping paper gave out half-way through, so half the presents were wrapped in newspaper (a nice pink financial section). Up till midnight peeling potatoes, filling stockings, pouring drinks etc. Next morning, woken at 5am by kids waving full stockings. Staggered up at 6.30am to wrestle the turkey out of the fridge and shove half a ton of sausagemeat up its backside. Much infuriated by husband appearing at 7.10am and saying `Anything I can do to help?' Got him to sort out eggs and bacon for the throng. Then hurled them all out of the kitchen so I could do battle with Delia in peace. Why oh why did I ever embark on all these sodding trimmings? Was hauled away from kitchen carnage scene for Present Opening, all to be done with ceremony and restraint as per when I was little - no unseemly grabbing and snatching, my parents were pleased to see. Sadly, the good behaviour deteriorated rapidly. `I wanted a mutant Ninja transforming alien from the Planet Tharg, not an alien mutoid Samurai creature from the Planet Throlp,' screamed Marcus. Meanwhile, Maria steadfastly ignored the cream of the Early Learning Centre and played with the discarded wrapping (and newspaper). Back in the kitchen, the parmesan parsnips were burning. We were supposed to eat at 1pm. Red-faced, sweating and slightly hysterical, I dished up at 2.10pm. By then all the grown-ups were tiddly and gorged with peanuts, while the children were fractious and gorged with Quality Street from the Big Christmas Tin. My beautiful home-made pudding was utterly rejected; everyone was too full and begged to be allowed to leave it till Boxing Day. (Though not too full for more Quality Street.) Then: the Queen's speech. Or not. `Who wants to listen to the same old rubbish,' whinnied his mother gaily, waving her whisky glass. `But we always listen to the Queen,' answered mine icily over her cup of tea. Luckily my parents go in for long blustery walks on Christmas afternoon, while his get slowly pickled, so we were able to keep them apart for a few hours. In the evening we had to run between the dining-room, where my parents had holed up with an educational board game, and the living room, where his were whooping it up in front of Only Fools And Horses. The dishwasher spluttered and died, the Hoover choked on a mixture of pine needles and tinsel, the remains of the turkey wouldn't fit in the fridge, and Marcus was sick on the rug. I knew how he felt; I was pretty sick myself by then, frankly."

EXPERT ADVICE: CHRISTMAS FLASHPOINTS AND HOW TO AVOID THEM

ORGANISATION AND MONEY

"My husband heroically said he'd get the meat. It took him all day to come up with a turkey; meanwhile I was elbowing my way around the scrum that was Sainsbury's. Got back to realise I'd forgotten the dates. Anyway, by then the cashpoint was refusing my card."

Aric Sigman, consultant psychologist, says: Women have traditionally been the emotional caretakers of the family, and the orchestrators of family gatherings. Popular psychology says that men should take on their share of the workload, but the question remains: do men have different standards? If the woman wants a classic family Christmas with all the frills she may have to accept that it is not so important to her partner. The solution may be compromise - if one person wants Christmas with all the trimmings, but perhaps their partner and/or children want to make more of just the day itself, they may have to cut back on their expectations. To say that they are being horse-whipped into doing the whole thing for the rest of the family may in fact be down to their own aspirations. You should make a realistic assessment of the most important aspects - in my view, family dynamics and having a meal together. Other things - present- buying and fuss - should fall by the wayside. Arguments about budgeting may well represent other differences. If you find one of you wants to spend more than the other, either draw up a budget or say, "I'll put in this much. If you want to spend pounds 350 on presents, the rest has to come from you." Failing that, the financially aggrieved partner could take the Brownie points and use that extra few quid to buy an emotional advantage. Enough repetitions of "remember how much you spent at Christmas" should have bought a superior power base by Easter!

FOOD

"Much infuriated by husband appearing at 7.10am and asking: `Anything I can do to help?' Hurled him out of the kitchen so I could do battle with Delia in peace. Why oh why did I ever embark on all these sodding trimmings?"

Moyra Fraser, cookery editor, Good Housekeeping, says: Never feel pressurised to do everything home-made. It's ridiculous. Make a list, pick out the things you'd like to do, and for the rest - cheat. Buy ready-made chilled cranberry, add a splash of port and some freshly grated orange rind - it'll taste home-made. There are very good chilled bread sauces, too - stir in some creme fraiche and add some freshly grated nutmeg. When you're making from scratch, stick to the stuff you feel confident with. Do make a time-plan - it will stop you flying round blindly on the day. And remember: there is no quick way to thaw a turkey - we get frantic calls every year asking if warm baths will help - so mark on the calendar the day you have to take it out of the freezer. Be sure there's room for the turkey and veg in your oven - if not, make other plans, perhaps saute potatoes rather than roast. Don't feel you have to buy a huge bird - a pound per person is fine. And you could ask your butcher to bone it; a boned stuffed bird is much easier to carve. If you have a vegetarian for dinner, make sure the stuffing is vegetarian - chestnut or walnut perhaps - and cook a portion separately in a loaf tin. And if you're microwaving your Christmas pudding, follow the instructions carefully - with all the sugar and alcohol in them, they can catch fire. It happened to my aunt.

CHILDREN

"`I wanted a mutant Ninja transforming alien from the Planet Tharg, not an alien mutoid Samurai creature from the Planet Throlp,' screamed Marcus. Meanwhile, Maria ignored the cream of the Early Learning Centre and played with the wrapping."

Sheila Kitzinger, childcare expert, says: People say "Christmas is for children", so they should put the children in the centre and make it a magical time for them. Don't expect too much of a reaction, though - small children often prefer the wrapping to the present. Think about their environment and make sure it's not so different to their usual one that they get unsettled. Prevention is better than cure. One good idea is to gradually give out small Christmas presents in the run-up to Christmas; it's nice for children to have new things to occupy them while their parents are so busy. Giving out presents and Christmas dinner shouldn't be the only ritual centres to the day itself. It's important to let the child share in the pleasure of giving. Christmas is not just about getting, and the child must have a giving role. My daughters used to dress up as angels and sing Christmas carols; that was their own special thing. Don't expect children to struggle through huge platefuls of indigestible, heavy food - offer very small portions. Try and keep a rhythm to the days - make time to get out of doors, time with music so they can dance off their energy, time with candles when there is a hush for telling stories. Little ones need to have rest times away from the rest of the family. But don't drown all the magic out - that would be a shame.

FAMILY

"In the evening we had to run between the dining room, where my parents had holed up with an educational board game, and the living room, where his were whooping it up in front of `Only Fools and Horses'."

Vivienne Gross, clinical director at the Institute of Family Therapy, says: At Christmas people are thrown together who wouldn't normally spend time together and tensions can rise to the surface - it can be hard to paper over the cracks. If you know you have to spend time with people you know you have difficulties with, try to make sure there's a buffer zone - perhaps keep someone else between you and the other person. Don't sit next to them at Christmas dinner. Some people find games a distraction, but if they are dragooned into them it won't help at all. Set out to avoid confrontation - there is a lot of extra alcohol about, and this can mean that people could say things they wouldn't normally say. There is such an emphasis on tradition at Christmas that people get wedded to their own family customs. If you are having unfamiliar in-laws round, or visiting family, and you know perhaps that they always listen to the Queen's Speech or open their presents on Christmas Eve when it's important to you that your children open theirs round the tree after dinner on the day, negotiate in advance - say "Would you mind if we did it this way?" and avoid upheaval on the day. Reduce your expectations. Start out thinking: "If we have a nice meal together, and don't expect too much, we'll be pleasantly surprised if it goes with a swing." Expect to get by, and good times will be a bonus.

8 Jacky Fleming's new book of cartoons, Hello Boys (Penguin, pounds 5.99), is out now.

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