1. Tree. There seems to be a lot of fuss about real vs fake, with the moral side, oddly, coming down in favour of real, since fake is not eco-friendly. Nonsense! If I buy a real tree every year, it always dies (yes, always, despite whatever heating/cooling/acclimatising/watering/replanting measures are taken). And that's not very environmentally friendly, is it? Plus, they cost a fortune, are always an odd shape, and shed so many needles that for years I thought it was traditional to buy a new vacuum cleaner every Christmas. My lovely fake one has been re-used over and over, it doesn't shed or start to smell, and I always know how tall it is (unlike a real one, which has to be potted, and in one case left such a mark on the ceiling we had to repaint.
Lots of lights, ribbons and baubles in vaguely matching colours, nothing breakable because, well, they break. If your house is like mine, with power points in really unhelpful places, run an extension cable across the floor, duct taping it if need be, and stick a cheap rug over the top. We have some that actually say Merry Christmas on them. Godsend.
Cat optional. But I find they add greatly to my enjoyment of the season.
2. Presents. A lot of people I know hate wrapping presents in the same way I hate novelty Christmas music. They hate shopping for them too, but I kind of agree on that front. To that end, here is Kate's mini guide to Christmas present shopping and wrapping.
a) The Internet is your best friend. No, I mean your bestest ever ever friend. You can buy most of what you want online, and it'll often be cheaper, plus you don't have to fight your way past the sort of nodcocks who seem to have never been in a shop before, women with unfeasibly large pushchairs and prams that they seem to believe must block the narrowest part of the shop, and most importantly you don't have to listen to Noddy Holder.
You can get things delivered to your work address if you don't think you'll be home, or to the address of a helpful friend or neighbour. Most online shops are savvy enough to package their goods discreetly, or at least in a way that doesn't make it 100% obvious what's inside (this goes double for anywhere selling lingerie!).
b) Sellotape is your next best friend. Buy lots, and I mean LOTS. And invest in Sellotape's best friend: the dispenser. A good, heavy-based one that won't fall off the table. You can get those strips of tape that go in a thing across your hand, but honestly, how fast will that run out?
c) Your final best friend is the humble cardboard box. I start collecting these in October, but then I'm an old hand at this and possibly (just possibly, mind) take it all too seriously. But anyone who's ever tried to wrap up cuddly toys, slippers, weird octagonal jars of peanuts and bottles of wine will surely appreciate that a box is much, much easier. In fact, for wine bottles a bag is often easier, but wrap the bottle in some tissue paper first (you can get away with being untidy with tissue paper, as long as it covers everything). If you order things online then you'll get boxes for free, or at least those cardboard sleeves from Amazon, which can do duty for smaller items.
A word of warning for the box user: you might have someone in your family like my dad, who'll unwrap a box that says, for instance, Skechers, and then spend the next ten minutes trying to work out what Skechers are, why it's spelled that way, and what you might possibly have bought him from them/it. He'll spy the label on the side that says SANDALS: PINK, Women UK7, and then spend a further ten minutes telling you he doesn't really want any pink women's sandals, and that he wears a size 9 anyway.
Eventually, you'll lose patience with the Spirit of Giving, and tell him to open the damn box and put on the sweater inside it. "But why does the box say sandals?" he'll wonder, aloud and many times over.
This, as you may have gathered, does my head in, so this year I'm trying a new strategy. I've put several awkward presents in boxes, but first I've covered them in plain white paper, using a Pritt Stick and scissors. After that they're wrapped as normal. I pray this will work. Or next year he's getting everything in carrier bags.
It's the season of goodwill, even for Demon Puppies.
d) If you're pressed for time and/or aren't sure when the recipient of the gift you're wrapping might walk in, wrap all the presents first, then decorate them later. By decorate I mean ribbons, bows, baubles, tags (although you might need to develop a system of remembering what you've wrapped for and from whom). What if the kids catch you wrapping gifts? My mother developed the clever story that she wrapped the presents, then sent them to Father Christmas to be delivered. It worked, too, at least until I started asking why the elves didn't wrap things.
I love adding frills and crenellations to presents. You can buy cheap curling ribbon, which still looks great, or the long rolls of sparkly fabric stuff intended for trees. Or go to a haberdashery (try John Lewis) and buy some plain satin ribbon by the metre. Tie tree decorations on and remember that here especially, Sellotape is your special friend.
e) If you're planning on making a display of your beautifully wrapped presents, try co-ordinating the paper and ribbons. Be wary of the really expensive paper though, as it's often too stiff to fold well. The really cheap stuff can tear as you're wrapping. However, if you're wrapping presents for children, the cheap stuff is great: it's SO much more fun tearing paper off than undoing it neatly!
Cat still optional, but he's far prettier than anything I could wrap.
3. Christmas tree lights are designed to raise your blood pressure. If they're cheap ones, they'll probably fail after a single season. Don't waste time and energy trying to fix them: buy some new ones. As with most electronics, you get what you pay for: my cheap Argos/Homebase/Tesco lights invariably fail after a year or two, no matter how carefully they're packed away. But the ones I bought from Habitat years ago have never needed so much as a bulb replaced (touch wood), despite being bundled randomly into cupboards at irregular intervals.
However, do bear in mind that it might just be a fuse, or in the case of my little fibroptic tree, the internal bulb. Cheaper than buying a new one, in that case.
4. If you live in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, as I do, then one thing is certain. You, or someone you know, WILL get a cold. He might stoically soldier on, refusing all treatment, but complaining wretchedly all the time. Ignore him (yes, I'm generalising, but come on: you know a man like this, don't you?).
Now, I've tried the stoic method, and you know what? The cold lasts just as long and is twice as unpleasant. I like the Take Lots Of Medication method. You can take paracetamol and ibuprofen at the same time (but be aware that things like Night Nurse and Lemsip might contain one or the other). An extra dose probably won't kill you, but you might want to avoid driving.
Drink tea, lots of tea. Drink hot Vimto or Ribena with a slosh of Glogg in it (if desperate, this can also be added to tea). Sudafed is great if you have sinus trouble. Contac is a lifesaver for all sorts of cold symptoms; Boots' own is also pretty good. Inhale steam with some eucalyptus oil in it (try the aromatherapy section of a health-food store if your supermarket or pharmacy doesn't have any). If, like me, you're unable to stop the sinus congestion affecting your ears, and find yourself feeling dizzy and sick, take travel-sickness remedies. If they make you sleepy, wear those sexy travelbands that press on the inside of your wrist. Yes, they look daft, but they can't be less pleasant than an ear infection. Also in the looking-daft section is a hat or headband that covers your ears. Especially when it's really cold (as it is now: I just took this from the window).
If all else fails, drink brandy, and be glad that unlike me, you won't have one of these waking you up every morning.
5. Last but not least: dress up and enjoy yourself!