Jane Roberts lets us in on the secrets of the great Christmas host.
It is a universally-acknowledged fact that those who have the luxury of living in relatively large spaces will always be expected to fill those large spaces at Christmas time. That’s all fine and dandy. It’s for charity.
Welcome to Cinderella Week: this is generally a village choir concert and party for up to 140, and another more private wine tasting party for 30 in the same week. One year a few weeks before Christmas I attached a pedometer to my waist. Around 15 miles of walking on one day. Inside the house. This is the modern update of assembling a Christmas party in a late 18th Century Grade II Listed building.
There are no cleaners, no decorators, no event co-ordinators, and no caterers. Just the occasional other members of your family when they’re not busy. But they’re always busy, so really, Cinders, you have to get a move on.
Furniture has to be shifted. A sea of heavy oak and mahogany ebbs and flows from in and out of the downstairs rooms. When anything is moved, dust is moved. You have to clean two hallways, one dining room, a morning room, two corridors, the toilets (don’t forget the toilets), a staircase, and the upstairs landings. You have to vacuum the ancient stuffed badgers. Sometimes a claw might fall off. It’s a hazard of being a house badger.
The ceilings are three or four times your height. A special Victorian trick is needed for cobweb removal. It is a tiny horsehair brush on a very long cane. Even then a certain amount of leaping and bobbing is required for the desired level of cleanliness.
On some of the coldest days of the year, you have been known to sport a vest top and hot pants. Why? It’s all to do with slathering on industrial quantities of wax… That’s right. Wax. To be more precise, Traffic Wax for wooden floors. Your winter skin might be reptilian, but the floors look damn good. Or they do after two hours of applying wax with a mop (your own time-saving wheeze), half a day to set it, a quick extra vacuum, and then the crowning glory – several hours of buffing with a vintage (and highly volatile) floor polisher. The shine will only last for as long as the first people come through the door, but the smell will at least linger over the Christmas period. And it will smell significantly better than you post polishing.
Then, how do you decorate what most people would equate to the size of rooms in a museum or art gallery? With difficulty. And a peculiar step-ladder/platform on wheels. Extreme vertigo sets in when dangling paper snowflakes from the staircase. One year a rat ate most of the decorations. You have to be prepared to adapt. So you will forage in the bushes, excavating treasured branches and clumps of foliage – all ideal for decoration. Then it is time to get a bit Banksy with some silver and gold aerosol cans. You will lose all sense of feeling in your nostrils for a minimum of four hours.
It is time to get industrial. Strong baler twine is needed to secure the Christmas tree to the staircase. After Christmas this balding conifer is usually forgotten about for a month – like a leftover stage prop from Macbeth incongruously invading a scene from a Jane Austen novel.
Yards of plastic table covering are needed. It’s the only non-recyclable item of the whole party process; yet essential for the protection of wooden table surfaces. Sellotape is your friend. You pretend you’re on Blue Peter. Then you think about toilet rolls… Directions to the toilet: forget to print and distribute these at your peril. No one wants to get lost in the decaying corridors to chance upon an ill-hidden pile of dirty laundry. If you take a left too soon, you’ll end up in the old Service Area, the servants’ quarters (your home for much of Cinderella Week).
In the kitchen you learn to multitask, to make multiple nibbles, sandwiches, casseroles, and bake all kinds of party food. Mostly all fresh on the day of consumption. And now most things have to be adapted for dairy and gluten intolerances. You will end up surrounded by a food mirage that will cease to exist in a few hours’ time. Apart from the sparse crumbs on the platters that have to be cleaned up, of course.
Peppered Mackerel Pinwheels:
Spread thinly onto one side of gluten-free tortillas a blended mix of peppered mackerel, (Dairy-Free) yoghurt, cress, and a little lemon juice; roll the tortilla up tightly, making sure the mixture doesn’t all come out of the sides; slice into 3-4cm pieces. And repeat till you can feed a roomful of people.
Onto the mulling of wine and spicing of apple. You never thought it would be so difficult to source a cinnamon stick before Christmas, but you live in the wilds of the countryside where you’re more likely to find some dead pheasants attached to your front door in the morning; it’s the little things that stress you more than anything. If you do have to manufacture gallons of mulled beverages, at the very least remember you can pre-cut and freeze the fruit well in advance of the day required. Always do this before putting the Christmas tree up. The acid of the lemons will react with the scratches on your hands from the pine needles, resulting in your inflamed hands resembling a cat’s novelty scratching post. Attractive.
The mulled wine involves 5 different (secret) spirits (because everybody knows that first drink is most important, especially on a cold evening, especially to entice people into purchasing raffle tickets…), lemonade rather than sugar and water, standard red wine, a little orange juice, fruit segments and spices.
Non-alcoholic Spiced Apple:
Equal quantities of apple juice and ginger beer mixed with double the measure of lemonade; add cinnamon (if you can find any…) and apple segments.
When the doors open and people come with, wiping mud or snow everywhere, you have to blank out how you will clean up the mess. If someone fuses a light, don’t worry – there are candles (as long as they aren’t too close to the paper decorations or flammable gold holly). If someone spills wine, dance across the room with an impish smile whilst scattering a liberal helping of salt over the stains. Think about the flakes of snow falling outside rather than the sausage roll puff pastry flaking onto the carpet.
The best part of Christmas entertaining? The moment you see a smile on someone else’s face. The moment you realise that all of these small components combine and make a difference – to someone’s day, and often to the coffers of a charity. All of that muscle ache? Totally worth it. Gazing at the embers of a dying log fire, it strikes Pumpkin Time in Cinderella Week… until clearing up begins.
Original illustration by Dean Lewis