It all seemed so easy a few weeks ago. When Christmas felt like an age away and plans were being loosely discussed, your response was casual, almost cavalier. 'We'll have it at ours', you said, barely giving the size and scale of hosting Christmas dinner a second thought. Once said, almost immediately forgotten. Until now.
Christmas Day approaches quickly and the weeks fly by. One minute it's the middle of November and the next it's the week before the 25th. Panic sets in. You have present buying to do, several parties and nights out to enjoy, work deadlines to meet - the same amount of duties to tick off in less time, of course, as the boss demands 150% of you - and the horrible growing realisation that on Christmas Day six guests will turn up at your door, expecting to be wined, dined and entertained. Actually, make that eight - two more family members who had said they were going to 'play it by ear' have since decided to accept the invitation you extended two months previously. Thanks for that.
There's no turning back now. You've made the commitment. Fortunately, there are two things to keep in mind. Firstly, plenty of people find themselves stressed out - this article in the Telegraph talks about 'the fear of the festive' - and under pressure in the countdown to Christmas. Secondly, even if you're cooking the most important meal of the year for the first time, there are ways to make the whole experience a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable. Here's how to bluff it on Christmas Day.
Have a plan
If you're cooking a massive turkey, please don't wing it (no pun intended). Have a plan and stick to it. This Food Network advice piece, which is aimed specifically for those cooking their first ever Christmas dinner, contains some great tips including something which is often overlooked. Make sure you have plenty of foil, cling film and plastic containers to hand - because you're going to need them for all the storage, covering and wrapping.
Christmas dinner instead of Christmas lunch
First of all, schedule Christmas dinner at a time that works for you and not everyone else.
As the host, it's entirely your call as to when you eat. Some families like to be tucking in by 12.30pm and others at 4pm - bear in mind that a midday lunch means you'll probably be toiling away in the kitchen for most of, if not all, of the morning. If you've got young children, you'll miss out on what is the best part of the day. While presents are being unwrapped and squeals of joy are being made, you'll be peelings spuds in the kitchen. And that's no kind of fun. A later dining time enables a more relaxed morning, which benefits everyone. You'll be a lot calmer and your guests will walk into a pleasant atmosphere.
Get your food delivered
There's plenty more you can do, however, and preparation is absolutely vital. Christmas Eve is a really important day. It's not the day to dash around the shops or the supermarket, snapping up last minute gifts and items of food. That should all have been done in the weeks and days before - if you're hosting Christmas dinner, DO NOT leave any grocery shopping until Christmas Eve. That's asking for trouble - though one trick is to get any last minute items, including the turkey, delivered right to your door. Many companies offer 'Christmas in a box' style deliveries, where you literally get every ingredient for the perfect dinner packed and handed to you; right down to the bread sauce. That's cheating, but in the best way. Who made the rules up anyway?
Christmas Eve: Preparation, preparation, preparation!
Ideally, Christmas Eve will be free of urgent tasks, leaving the chef available to get ahead of the meal preparation. This article, titled How to cheat at Christmas, stresses the point that, 'most of the veg can be prepared the day before'. And it can. Peel and trim carrots, parsnips, potatoes and sprouts, and just make sure they're kept stored in water overnight. It might sound like a laborious job and a bit of a chore on December 24th but it doesn't have to be - put some festive songs or carols on and pour a glass of wine or Prosecco.
The veg will then be ready to boil in a pan 20-30 minutes before serving - or even more convenient, to toss into a steamer. If you don't have one, get one. There are models with two or three tiers and not only do steamers allow the vegetables to be cooked evenly and without the need to keep an eye on a pan of boiling water, the flavour is far superior compared to potentially being overcooked on the hob. No more mushy carrots or soggy sprouts; your veg will taste fresh and have that all-important 'bite'.
Potatoes, incidentally, can be par-boiled the night before, further reducing the work required on the 25th. Just bring the spuds to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes or so, making sure they don't start breaking up. Remove from the pan and drain, then keep submerged in water until shortly before serving on Christmas Day. You'll find the majority of the cooking process has already been achieved and they should roast and crisp up nicely the next day.
It's not just the veg that can be prepared the day before either. For the best tasting turkey, some quick Christmas Eve preparation is key according to this recipe from AO.com - and then all you need to do on Christmas Day is pop it in the oven.
Tricks and tips to impress
Of course, you shouldn't just be aiming to make a dinner that runs to schedule and on time; you want to make it a great meal. You want your guests to leave the table feeling not only full but impressed, and complimentary about the meal they have just consumed. It's easy to make an ordinary Christmas dinner - which is essentially the classic meat and two veg roast - but it's also just as easy to elevate the meal beyond the norm with some simple tweaks and dashes of flair.
* Sausage meat stuffing is a crowd pleaser and a step up from the standard safe and onion fare. It's an absolute doddle too. Buy the sausage meat in a pack, roll into balls and bake in the oven.
* Liven up sprouts - which are never the tastiest of veg although they are a must for the dinner table - by adding a generous portion of chopped bacon and chestnuts.
* Jamie Oliver is always a useful source of ideas for jazzing up traditional veg and side dishes. Two of his best recipes for festive cheer include red cabbage with apple, bacon and balsamic vinegar, and these sweet glazed carrots.
* Renowned cheese expert Charlie Turnbull has a couple of great last-minute suggestions for starters and canapes here, which include a spoonful of mincemeat in a canape case, topped with grape and stilton. These are great little appetisers served with a tipple to welcome guests.
* Don't forget dessert! It goes without saying that Christmas pudding is usually expected - rather than making one weeks in advance, just buy a good quality version from a supermarket. But for something a little different, these chestnut chocolate pots from Nigella Lawson are eye-catching little creations. Nigella is known for keeping recipes as simple as possible and this recipe has just six ingredients.
A final point - remember that you're not a chef in a five-star restaurant or a front of house manager attempting to please and appease paying customers. Your guests are your closest family and your dearest allies so they'll forgive a meal which runs 15 minutes later than schedule or a dish which is less than perfect. Happy Christmas!