Matt Preston shares his hints for surviving Christmas 2023

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I do rather like a party. Over years of misadventure and disasters, however, I’ve cataloged some failsafe rules about what matters when it comes to going to Christmas parties and drinks.

These rules won’t save you from losing face or making a fool of yourself if you’ve really got your heart set on that, but they will make for a smoother and more joyous season and, thus, hopefully, for a little more fun and fulfillment at the end of a year when you really deserve it.

WHAT TO EAT

At any party, the secret is to try a little of everything and then come back in hard for the best stuff. With canapes, be selective and only plunge for the stuff that you know will be good – the sausage rolls, the chicken skewers, the Peking duck pancakes, and smoked salmon blinis are reliable.

It’s hard to ditch a dodgy canape neatly at a busy drinks party. Dropping it on the floor is unacceptable. Flicking it into one of the nearby pot plants should only be a last resort (and when no one who will dob you into the host is watching). Always avoid the mini quiches (until you hear if they’re any good), anything that may drip on you, and anything that takes two hands to eat. You really don’t want to have to find a place for your drink while you attack that mini bowl of risotto.

WHAT TO TAKE

The two things that are essential for you to take to any party, Christmas drinks, or dinner are an open mind and an interest in the other guests. You should see this as your entry ticket to any Christmas gathering to which you’re invited.

Enthusiasm is also good, but do temper it a wee bit with people you don’t know. Being over-the-top can come across as a little bit manic and unsettling… or so I’ve been taken aside and told by some hosts.

Always take something to drink and share unless specifically instructed not to. Wine and beer are standard. A bottle of champagne (or a slab) is always appreciated, but given their price, sometimes a bottle of mid-shelf spirits is a good alternative. If you do take spirits, then also take mixers and garnish to match. This can be as little as an orange or some lemons or fresh herbs like thyme, basil, or bay leaves.

If you really want to be a good friend, then a small bunch of homegrown flowers, a box of fine chocolates, or a jar of homemade chutney to go with the inevitable leftover Christmas turkey sandwiches are nice gestures. No, it isn’t acceptable to pick the blooms from a neighbor’s garden on the way over. Wrapping that bouquet with paper and ribbon or artfully tied twine, however, will make people think you may be the new Martha Stewart – minus the stock tips and the prison tatts, of course.

As a host, I like it when my guests also bring their dancing shoes. These days, feel free to get your favorite doof stick, too. This could come in handy as a social-distancing tool and be useful when confronted by some more handsy or socially lubricated guests.

If asked to bring a plate, the short answer is a choice between a tray of caramel slices, mini pavs, or a jug of summer punch complete with suitable glassware. You’ll find loads more, and far more in-depth, advice here about what plate to take to buffets, drinks, or picnics.

WHAT NOT TO TAKE

Please don’t take anything you wouldn’t drink yourself, that bottle of wine that you’ve been desperate to try (it looks pushy and entitled to ask to open the bottle you’ve brought), or a bad attitude.

I’d also avoid bringing the host’s ex-fiance as your date, as you know that’s never going to end well. Also, don’t take anything pocket-sized from their living room as a souvenir of the night, no matter how nice and shiny it will look sitting on your mantelpiece rather than theirs.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR

For him: a Christmas tree suit – unless it zips up to make you look like a proper Christmas tree, complete with shiny red baubles, flashing lights, and a shiny gold-star fascinator. Those $70 red jacket-and-pants suits with a Christmas tree print may seem like a good idea when you’re bored trawling through novelty Christmas sites, but don’t be fooled…

For her: Avoid anything your mother would wear. Also, avoid anything your daughter would wear and would sneak out the back door so you wouldn’t see it.

I am, however, quietly all in favor of comedy Christmas jumpers or a Santa suit worn however you might like – quirkily or cheekily.

Pack a punch

FOUR THINGS TO MAKE

1. Friends.

2. Plans for the coming holidays.

3. An effort.

4. Moves on the hottest, smartest person in the room (but only if you’re single and it’s both appropriate and appreciated, obviously).

AND FINALLY, HOW TO LEAVE

You really do always have to say goodbye. The only time it is permissible not to is when you have misbehaved so badly that your friends or partner are leading you from the party.

If you are worried that the party will be a dud, flag when RSVPing that you may not be able to stay long as you have to visit your mum/gran/yogi. If the night’s a cracker and you wait, the hosts feel like they pulled off the party of the century. If it is dud, then you won’t have to seek out the host amongst the wreckage of the night and say your goodbyes. That’s never good.

With your early exit plan in place, you can wave from across the atrophied room and mime that you are off. Always end this with the universally understood phone-to-the-ear hand gesture – even if you have no intention of calling them for fear that you’ll unleash on the 45 minutes you wasted at their party listening to an over-wrought parent discussing their youngest’s ear infection or the challenges of finding a good artisan turkey in these post-Covid times.

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