What are you doing for Christmas? Are you going to theirs or are they coming to you? Are you a) Excited and can't wait, b) Slightly frazzled that you haven't yet written any cards or finished buying, let alone wrapping any presents, c) Looking forward to when the whole kerfuffle is over for another year. There is a saying "Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes it brings good cheer." To which I'd say "Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes it brings most women to the verge of a nervous breakdown!" I say 'women' because I truly believe that Christmas wouldn't happen without the women of the family investing a huge amount of physical and emotional energy into trying to create the perfect Christmas.

Let me get you to search your memory for a moment or two. You may need to close your eyes (I know how tired you are so try not to nod off)! Now call to mind your perfect Christmas. Think about how old you are, where it's happening, and what kind of things you are doing. Try to make it as real as possible by visualising the sights, hearing the sounds and imagining the smells of the day. Is there a particular kind of music playing? What food are you eating? And what presents have you received? Who is spending the day with you? In my very best Christmas memory I'd be about 7 years old and it would be Christmas Eve. My mum is making mince pies (delicious smells coming from the kitchen), my dad has just come home from work and my brother and I are sitting by a roaring fire and we are watching a Disney cartoon (Bambi?) on TV. There are some intriguing looking presents under the twinkling Christmas tree and I am so excited I could burst with the anticipation of all the delights to come.

The trouble is that I'm not sure this actually happened. I suspect it's a combination of a partial childhood memory muddled up with some nostalgic TV Christmas advertisement set in the 1950's! I wonder what your perfect Christmas memory involved and I also wonder whether you have ever been able to recreate it because I don't think I've ever come close! I've had some truly awful Christmases in the past 69 years. When I spent my first Christmas away from home I realised just what a joyless affair our family Christmases had been. My mum was kind, generous and loving but she was also controlling, fussy and hated mess of any sort. She disliked cooking but wouldn't accept any help in 'her' kitchen. Our main meal every day was served at precisely one o'clock and she made no exception for Christmas. We had to hurry up and eat the roast turkey she'd spent all morning complaining about cooking so that she could get everything tidied away in time for the Queen's Christmas message at 3 pm. There were no silly paper hats, no family games, absolutely no alcohol and very little in the way of fun. I was amazed that other families had different rituals that involved chaos and laughter!

Divorce brought many more challenging Christmases. My ex and I settled into alternating 'one year with and one year without' the children. So every other year I had to find something to do with myself during the Christmas period. The nadir was the one I spent in a cold and remote part of Germany with some friends of a friend. This was alienating on so many levels. Foreign country, foreign language, foreign traditions, strange food and people I hardly knew. Because I went by plane I didn't have much room for presents so I had two or three small gifts to open on Christmas Day and each was for various reasons a terrible disappointment. I can remember thinking 'just get through the next hour and you will be one hour closer to going home'. If that sounds ungrateful it probably is, but I can assure you that it's truly horrible being somewhere you don't want to be with people you don't want to be with, especially when you feel as though everyone else in the world is having a fantastic time!

These experiences taught me some valuable lessons which I now try to apply to Christmas every year:

If you are hosting:

  1. Forget your fantasy of creating the perfect Christmas. It doesn't exist and there will be few people who are actually experiencing or expecting it. Aim for a relaxed 'good enough' Christmas.
  2. Delegate specific tasks, ask for and accept help. Allow people not to do it 'your way.'
  3. Remember your 'children' aren't children any more, so don't indulge them as if they are still  three years old.
  4. Don't do 'martyr'. Remember you are choosing this.

If you are a guest:

  1. Don't make other people's traditions 'wrong'. Just because they don't have turkey or bread sauce or serve brandy butter with their Christmas pudding or they don't open their presents until 5pm on Christmas Day, it really doesn't matter.
  2. Offer to help but also take the initiative and do things off your own bat (like washing up - I spend most of Christmas day wearing rubber gloves)!
  3. If you are staying take your own pillow. This is the only way I can ever sleep in a guest bedroom, however beautiful.

And wherever you are:

  1. Be insanely delighted when you open any present you receive, leap up immediately, kiss the gift giver and say 'how lovely'. Even though you already have at least 6 scented candles in a drawer at home.
  2. Don't expect the same response as (#1) to the gifts you have spent hours choosing. Maybe that green thingy wasn't such a good idea after all. Always give gift receipts.
  3. And finally smile benignly all day long, stay calm and extremely tolerant of all excess (and any untidiness and mess - I am my mother's daughter!) including noise, terrible music, boisterous children, food, alcohol, chocolate, cheese and nuts.

I no longer have fantasies of a perfect Christmas wherever I happen to spend it. For the past 14 years I have spent the day as a guest (lucky me) with one or other of my two daughters (see Suzy left) and their families and in-laws. I usually have a wonderful time because the only thing I need to feel happy is to be with at least one person that I love and who I know loves me too. This year I'm very lucky to be spending my Christmas birthday with all of the people I love most - five grandchildren (aged from 5 months to 8 years) and eight adults. I very much hope that you will also have a wonderful Christmas and that it lives up to your dream of what constitutes a very happy time.