When I tell people that this year it's our turn to have the in-laws for Christmas, there are varying responses.
Some raise their eyebrows, others say "how lovely", some look at me pityingly, reach for the wine and pour me a large dry white, others look downcast and wistful: "I wish we could have the in-laws, they're all dead now".
Yes it's that time of year – when feverish preparations for what increasingly feels like a two-month-long celebration begin to culminate in stressed-out, harassed mothers across the land wailing "I can't do it all".
So how do you cope with the onslaught of Christmas shopping, baking, card writing, present wrapping – not to mention turning your home into a winter wonderland guest palace worthy of the Snow Queen (aka your sister, dad or other), and still have enough energy for The Big Day itself?
Well the short answer is that you don't.
"If you don't want to be reaching for the axe before noon on Christmas Day, sit down and plan with the whole family how you are all going to muck in to make Christmas an enjoyable time for everyone," says agony aunt Suzie Hayman,
"Very often Christmas guests don't want to be waited on hand and foot – they would far rather be involved and have something to do. That way everyone gets to enjoy the celebrations and you don't end up feeling like a martyr in the kitchen."
Well I for one will be taking Suzie's advice. Very soon my husband, our three children and I are going to sit down and work out a to-do list which will hopefully see Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the couple of days after that – when we will have an additional six family members sleeping under our roof – slip by enjoyably, rather than with me festering in the kitchen and everyone else watching The Sound of Music whilst stuffing their faces on Quality Street.
"Perfect" says Suzie, whose wide words of wisdom extend to giving everyone clear, but friendly instructions, about what they can do to help. "So for example your mother-in-law can be asked to be in charge of making the family favourite rum sauce on the day to go with the Christmas pudding, which she will could also be invited to bring. And your brother-in-law could be invited to be responsible for loading and re-loading the dishwasher."
The control freaks among us may baulk at the idea of someone else using their hob, or stacking their crockery – or indeed being asked to help when they are a guest in your home - but in all honesty delegating out the work will in the long term pay dividends.
There's one last pearl of wisdom from Suzie: "Make it clear to all these willing volunteers that the job(s) assigned to them are really their responsibility, and that you won't be picking up the slack. Then if it doesn't get done, everyone can blame them – not you.
"Once you accept it doesn't have to be perfect – then your whole attitude will change and you may even find you have time to join in the fun and games too," soothes Suzie.
Top five tips for helping the Christmas break with relatives go smoothly:
1. Accept that: the house will get in a mess; someone may drink too much and become emotional, embarrassing or rude; the turkey will take longer to cook that you allow for; your brother's girlfriend may make snidey remarks about your "home-made" cranberry sauce. Rise above it all.
2. It's perfectly acceptable to have a little me-time if family are staying over for more than 24 hours. Say how you must go for a run the day after Boxing Day morning – "otherwise I come over all strange". Even if you run to a coffee shop and just read a paper. It will make you feel better – as will a run.
3. Make a daily "to do" list over the holiday – then display it on the fridge where everyone can see it. If someone ventures "can I do anything to help?, nod vigorously and point to the list. Ok, so they may not want to clean out the hamster cage, but if they're happy to have a quick dash about with the vacuum cleaner, let them. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "be my guest".
4. Finally, remember that life is short and who knows what's around the corner. If you have invited relatives, do so with a gracious and welcoming attitude. After all, next year the (snow)boot may be on the other foot.
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