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A Christmas Survival Guide

By Karen Swan

When it comes to surviving Christmas, we need
advice from the experts - so we called in the help
of Karen Swan, best-selling author of Christmas
in the Snow and Christmas on Primrose Hill.

"Christmas isn't for amateurs. It isn't for the faint-hearted. Most women will tell you their coming-of-age wasn't a result of turning eighteen or dancing in heels for the first time, it was pulling off their very own start-to-finish Christmas - from dressing the tree and wrapping the stocking fillers, to basting the turkey and getting that brandy-soaked pudding aflame.

Ask a man when the Christmas season starts and he'll tell you December; ask a woman and she'll tell you October, almost as soon as the schools have gone back. Christmas is a marathon, not a sprint - to get over that line without having a heart attack, you need to prepare. At least, that's how I look upon it; with a husband, three kids, two dogs and a full-time career, gone are the days when I could wander through the high street three days before Christmas and simply buy as I saw. Now there are god-children and nieces and nephews to consider, teacher presents, stockings and under-the-trees Geschenke, guests coming to stay and yes, still work deadlines to meet.

So I go into training, early. Little and constant is my philosophy - hoarding the best toy catalogues as they hit the mat, compiling a spreadsheet to which I add and delete ideas - who can exist without a list? - and browsing the Christmas bazaars that are every chic village's new-wave farmer markets. By the end of October, I'm well over halfway through my shopping list and baking the Christmas cake and pudding then too; both are best when allowed to mature for a number of weeks and it means I don't have to think about them again until the big day. Tick.

Getting the Christmas cards done in November when the nights are dark but quiet, is an unsung thrill - how smug? - and come the end of that month, I'm air-punching for joy to book that plum Christmas Eve delivery slot for my grocery shopping: fighting over sprouts in the supermarket, with only eighteen hours to go is a particular low-point that should be avoided at all costs.

By the start of December, all that's left to do is the fun stuff: parties, carols and wrapping...The second weekend in December is the best time for buying the tree - early enough to choose the best specimens, not so early that the tree's bald by the 25th - and make batches of gingerbread to store in the fridge, ready for baking and decorating when school's out.

Come Christmas Eve, when the fire's roaring, mulled wine's warming and the stockings are laid out, the groundwork has paid off. Christmas has come again and it all looks so easy: children are playing, Nat King Cole's singing and men across the land are fishing out their gift receipts. The house is dressed in its finery and so am I. I can kick back and relax, knowing my work here is done. Someone else can do the washing up. I'm off to read my book."

Karen's book, Christmas on Primrose Hill, is published
by Pan Macmillian at £7.99.

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