"If it were not for guests, all houses would be graves," said the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. Christmas next week heralds the arrival of two things - mistletoe at home and visitors in their droves.
On Christmas Eve, widows, bachelors, old maids, nutty aunts, boozing grannies, freeloading spongers and in-laws like myself will be welcomed into unfamiliar homes. Like Santa, these stopovers are, for the most part, limited to once a year. It's not just sweating it out in the kitchen which drives hosts mad; there are extra beds, linen, glasses, seating and entertainment to be arranged.
This will be my first Christmas away from home. I am trekking up to my Scottish in-laws to reap the rewards of turkey without the effort. The festive invasion of nattering wives and energetic grandchildren will take over the house. Predicting a yuletide riot, my interior designer mother-in-law has knocked into the attic to create a superfluous bedroom.
Instead of calling in the builders like my stylish mother-in-law, most suffice with collapsible furniture. Once the holidays are over, it can be stashed out of sight. Extendable tables, camp beds, inflatable beds and folding chairs cater for extra numbers. Formerly exclusive to babies and classrooms, folding chairs are soaring in popularity among the design-conscious. Jasper Morrison conceived the design of his Folding Air Chair when sitting on an old-fashioned wooden folding chair at a local residents’ meeting.
Frantic Christmas hosts find reassurance with Amazon and sofa.com who can guarantee delivery for the big day. I spoke to Patrick Reeves, founder of sofa.com, who offers same day delivery right up till 22 December: "There are always a few desperados who phone up begging for pre-Christmas delivery of sofas. Last year, we had people phoning up on 23rd December in a state of chaos needing extra seating."
Forget kipping on the sofa, temporary sleeping arrangements invites a minefield of choices. Ever since sleeping in a foldaway wall bed in my brother’s New York bachelor pad, I’ve been obsessed with the genius invention. It flipped up and disappeared behind concertina cupboard doors during the day. Back in London, I returned the favour by buying an Aero bed from John Lewis; when my brothers drop in unannounced, I can pump up the inflatable bed in ten minutes.
Courtesy of the financial climate, Scrooge is doing his utmost to dampen host’s Christmas cheer. Less people are splurging on sofa beds for relatives this Christmas. Cushions and a camping mat is the credit crunch sleeping arrangement. And as for vegging in front of the TV, it's beanbags for 2008. John Lewis recently reported a 16 per cent rise in sales of beanbags - come New Year, they’ll be stashed in the cupboard.
Sofa bed sales are not alone in being affected by the financial climate. Fewer hosts will dish out brussel sprouts with the family silver this year. According to the charity Shelter, one in nine British households had to sell possessions this year. Here’s hoping that great aunt Sylvia won't notice the absence of her silver candle sticks on Christmas Day.
By Boxing Day, Gibran's words of hospitality fall on deaf ears. It is only for so long that people enjoy having their house cluttered with extra guests - and furniture. If only we could shut away the guests as easily as the folding chairs. An empty house may be as ghostly as a graveyard but as Shakespeare said, "Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone."