The Best Present This Year: Christmas Comfort Instead of Competition

At Christmas - the perfect time of year for taking good care of ourselves and our relationships - a little, honest thank you can mean so much.

For some people the Christmas holidays are anything but a time of rest. If anything, any ambition they may harbour in the workplace is replaced by a steely determination to make the best possible impression as guest or host in front of family or friends.

The traditional idea of Christmas and the New Year is to spend time with those dearest to you and to use the holidays as an opportunity to relax and draw breath. But this idea seems to be flooded by a tidal wave of books, magazine articles and television programmes that tell us how to be a domestic deity or a true party animal.

I sometimes feel like calling a time-out in an attempt to get people to realise what I believe to be the error of their ways. That is certainly not because I don't love this time of year. From my childhood days in Austria, Christmas has always held a special magic and silent nights are somehow 'holy' for us, not only because this globally-known Christmas song was written in 1859 in my home country, not far from where I was born.

Given that I spend my time helping develop others' ability to present themselves better in social and professional situations, the idea of creating a good image is not a factor in my mind either.

I simply believe that the best Christmas parties involve a mood of celebration and moderation - celebration of both friendship and love and moderation both in our pace and behaviour in the final weeks of the year.

We are bombarded with media messages urging us to be extreme and have the brightest decorations, the most expensive or fashionable gifts, the biggest turkey. Yet I think that if we are to match up to the ideal spirit of the season, described in traditional carols as "comfort and joy", we need to slow down and scale down our festivities.

Being a host does not have to mean putting on a show. You shouldn't feel under pressure to impress. You should not have to get everything right, bright and alight. True effort coming from the heart will be noticed. Whatever you do to just show off will be perceived as such, no matter how many golden baubles you will use or how many sparkling bottles you open.

It starts with the guest list. For me, Christmas is not the best time to invite your boss, 'important people', a potential business contact or 'so-so' friends to your home. Gather around you those who you can relax with and who can relax in your company too.

Put yourself in their shoes. Would you rather have a good time and conversation, unfussy food and the chance to enjoy yourself or be on edge because your host was stressed?

It's not about how much things costs or whether everything in your house is perfect but putting some thought into how to make your guests feel right at home in your home. For instance, do any of them come from cultures which have different ways of celebrating Christmas and, if so, how can you bring a taste of that into what you organise?

As a guest, you also need to think about your host and the fact that they're possibly going to be very busy preparing to cater for a house full of people.

If you have any special dietary requirements, let them know in advance. Well in advance. There are few worse things as a host than being caught unawares and having only microwaved vegetarian sausages to offer someone who omitted to tell you that they don't eat meat while their fellow guests tuck into a large, hearty meal. Offer to bring something to the party which will help relieve some of the time and stress involved with preparation for the host.

It is not unusual for people to eat a lot at Christmas but try not to eat or drink too much. No matter how close you are to your hosts, the consequences of over-indulgence can betray a lack of respect. On the other hand, not eating at all and fussily forking around and leaving most on your plate without enjoying your food does not show any appreciation either.

Likewise, even if there is no stated dress code, the ideal should be smart casual so as not to look as though you are neither trying too hard or too little.

Show genuine appreciation for your host's efforts. I find it very useful to think of three things which I really liked and comment favourably on those. That shows sincerity and that I was paying attention, and they are better-received than a mumbled "Umm...great, thanks".

Finally, courtesy does not have to stop as you bid your hosts goodnight. We live in a digital age when the art of letter writing unfortunately seems to have gone out of fashion. For some hosts it will be totally fine to send an e-mail expressing your gratitude. If you opt for something even more up-to-date, better still, use a great iPhone app which I came across that allows you to take a picture of your party and convert it into a card (with touching greeting) that is sent to your hosts within a couple of days.

At Christmas - the perfect time of year for taking good care of ourselves and our relationships - a little, honest thank you can mean so much.