Good friends for Christmas

What happens at Christmas when your family dwindles in number? Michael White (and mum) head for a hotel

I know a lot of people who look forward to the festive season like a visit to the dentist. If they can, with any dignity, they run away: the rich go to the Caribbean, while the socially concerned go cooking for the homeless. All of which I understand. There is a chill in that initial, shock encounter, usually around the first week in October, when you saunter into Sainsbury's and it hits you: piled-high Christmas crackers, tinsel dribbled round the frozen food, and Jamie Oliver's insider's guide to turkey-stuffing closing in like a concerted pincer-movement at the checkout. At that moment, I can hear the homeless calling.

But in recent years I've taken the offensive and, far from running away from Christmas, I've run into it - with open arms, embracing the Dickensian tosh, the merry wassailing and mock-medieval cheer. I've bought the package: literally, at a country-house hotel that does the package. And if nothing else it solved the problem of how to wassail through the black hole from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day when your entire family consists of you and a widowed mother. Christmas lunch à deux in paper hats before a TV afternoon of Morecambe and Wise reruns isn't the best fun. You sit and think: there must be better ways. There are.

Last year the better way for my mother and me was an imposing pile of ancient provenance called Fawsley Hall, between the M1 and M40 in Northamptonshire. From pictures in the brochure it looked fortress-solid in a snow-swept landscape - which turned out to be 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland, complete with lake, sheep, church, and infinite amounts of clear blue sky. In other words, it was remote.

But remote is OK at Christmas, so long as you feel bedded-in with comfort. And the bedding count at Fawsley Hall was high: wood panelling, ancestral portraits, mullioned windows, inner courtyards, candles, and - the showpiece - an Elizabethan Great Hall that by all accounts really did entertain Elizabeth I and in any event came with a fine floor-to-vaulting oriel window (just big enough for a 25ft Christmas tree) and a fireplace the size of an average suburban house.

Christmas package brochures always focus on the fireplace, with the promise of some ever-blazing furnace to retreat to with your book and brandy. In reality it's usually burnt out (as this one was), or blocked out by your fellow guests who got there first and hogged the armchairs. So my Tip No 1 for the perfect Christmas package is to find a place with several fires and fire-efficient staff to keep them going. Fawsley, alas, had just the one, which meant a constant fight for seats (loudly described as "cut-throat" by a couple of our fellow-guests who were never quick enough off the mark) and the odd resort to underhand tactics like leaving the seasonal equivalent of a beach-towel on a chair of choice. All afternoon. A bit un-British.

But then many of the guests at Fawsley were not British. Of the 90 on the package a surprising number had flown in, in search of the authentic English Yule. And the Americans, inevitably, were the most enthusiastic: the life and soul of the house-party spirit that you need on Christmas packages as much as blazing fires. And, yes, it really felt like Christmas. Strangers became friends, of sorts. They opened up, they told their stories. Self-made millionaires from Essex. Young professionals from Cheltenham. A pair of nuclear scientists from the North. A woman born in a Second World War prison camp in the West Indies where her (German) father had been running a leper colony for the Scottish Episcopal Church. Only in a country-house hotel at Christmas, having claimed the fire-seats, would you find such people and believe them.

By Christmas Day, when half the guests squeezed into the small estate church for an untroubling dose of robust, middle-of-the-road Anglicanism, the new friends had become old ones. And by Boxing Day, when the hotel management led a long walk across frost-encrusted fields, they were temporary family. To that extent Fawsley wasn't just bed and board, it was a social service. And although the service didn't come cheap (what does?) it was discreetly managed by a staff who knew the drill: who understood how far to take the organised conviviality, and when to leave you to your book and brandy. If they'd only kept that fire alight ... Another time I'll take some matches.

Fawsley Hall's Christmas House Party runs for three nights from 24-26 December, with meals and optional diversions. From £597.50 to £860 per person (01327 892000; www.fawsleyhall.com).

Our favourite festive break

If the thought of splashing out even more money at Christmas leaves you feeling seasonally cold, take our tip for a budget Yuletide break. The Youth Hostel Association (0870 770 8868; yha.org.uk) is offering cut-price deals to two of England's most picturesque cities. YHA Cambridge is offering three nights from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day from £78 adults and £63.50 under 18s, including all meals, with discounts for members. And YHA York is offering 33 per cent off b&b, with prices from £12 per person per night in shared accommodation. Private rooms are also available at both hostels. Festive events will include special meals on Christmas Day.

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