In The Country Magazine
In The Country

How to be a good guest this Christmas

Written by Assistant Editor, Kate Woodcock.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Christmas period with family can be fraught with potential disaster for even the fondest of relationships and with the first advent calendar door open, ’tis officially the season to be jolly, joyous and really, really patient.

Come 23rd December, rather than Driving Home for Christmas, I will be packing up my sleigh with beautifully-wrapped parcels, a case of good champagne, a brandy-laced cake and plenty of goodwill to all men, to drive the 350 miles north to join my husband’s family at their home in Scotland. With snow on the ground, a 9ft tree and dogs-a-plenty it’s an idyllic setting, but nevertheless, four days and nights under one roof will doubtless involve some deep breaths for us all – it’s part and festive parcel, isn’t it?

So in my usual way of dealing with a challenge I have read up a bit and spoken to those whose tact I admire to come up with a list of ways in which even the most hapless individual can become a delightful house guest this year.

Arrive as you mean to go on

i.e. independently and with minimal inconvenience. No matter how remote the destined cottage/outhouse/castle, it is your responsibility to get yourself there on time. Be sure to ask what time is convenient for you to arrive. The cheapest train might seem the obvious choice, but arriving when the host is still in their pj’s or so late you aren’t able to offer help is just not cricket.

If a lift is offered, then fine, but requesting collection from the railway station just as they’re about to serve lunch, or setting up a dedicated WhatsApp group for directions is not polite, and there probably isn’t 4G anyway, so prebook a local taxi well in advance.

Pack right

Do your hosts dress for dinner? Or sit down to their Christmas turkey in black tie? (I’ve seen it). Perhaps there is an obligatory Boxing Day walk. Either way suss out the deal and be sure to pack appropriately so you aren’t sending your host rummaging for extra layers for you.

Consider taking your own towels? 

Your host will obviously exclaim that “you shouldn’t have done that!”, but it shows willing and they’ll be quietly thrilled at less laundry. 

Don’t be precious…about anything.

Unless it’s a full blown nut allergy likely to end in your demise, just get on with it. Pack your medication (and maybe a snack for your room after lights-out) but definitely don’t bring it up when the plate is in front of you.

Never mention being cold

Discreetly put on another layer, or better-still layer up with thermal leggings or tights under your jeans before coming down to breakfast.

Mind the hot water

Of a morning maybe check everyone else has showered before you draw yourself a lovely bath. Nothing adds to familial tension like someone not getting a hot shower.

Don’t wait to be asked

If you are an early riser, this is your chance to shine: fill the kettle, unload the dishwasher, put drying up away or light the fire before your host comes down.

Offer to nip out for that forgotten essential or – if your host is kind enough to lend their car – why not fill up the tank or get it washed for them?

For longer stays, we recommend making yourself scarce for a period each day, rather than standing on ceremony and making others feel they must entertain you from from dawn until dusk. If you can’t see obvious ways to be of use, announce that you’re going on a walk and ask if you can take the dog out or feed those leftovers to the chickens whilst they have a quiet cup of tea.

Take on the worst of the jobs

Washing said dog after the muddy walk; peeling all the potatoes or criss-crossing the sodding sprouts {proven to add nothing, yet still we persist}. There are two types of guests at house parties: Those who waft downstairs on a cloud of Chanel insisting they must help, before disappearing to enjoy the party; and those who roll up their sleeves and ensure the host’s glass is always topped up. Be the latter.

If you want to make it into the stuff of houseguest legend, try to ensure your host get precious time to themselves {with sufficient hot water} to take off their apron and throw on some lippy, before everyone else rocks up: They will really thank you for this and you can always dash up to change later.

Fall in line

I am an only child, so my idea of a perfect end to Christmas day is collapsing in front of the fire with the remaining Quality Street and Vicar of Dibley Christmas special. So imagine my horror upon discovering that other families like games after dinner. Embarrassing, act-it-out, shouty games. I quickly learnt that when it is someone’s else’s party, your job as guest is to get stuck in, ideally humiliating yourself for their entertainment…so neck that sherry and get on with what the card tells you to.

Take a proper gift

NOT a warm bottle of Hardy’s sauvignon and those M&S truffles that expired somewhere around Easter. I am talking a luxury thing that you’d be over the moon to receive yourself, that says ‘I recognise having us all descend on you for an extended period is hard and advance apologies should we annoy you.’

This is worth the investment, so that when you do accidentally use the last of the hot water, you can sheepishly light that three-wick candle or pour them a glass from that lovely, chilled magnum. If you are staying more than three nights, a) really? and b) don’t scrimp. And if you are bringing children…best make it a whole hamper.

Gifts likely to be well received…

– A bottle of their favourite scent. If you don’t know this, you probably shouldn’t be forcing yourself into their home – just a thought.

– A three-wick orange and clove candle from the Spitalfields Candle Company. The scent is stronger than the finest luxury brands

– Send a carefully curated case of wines ahead of time, with a note saying how much you are looking forward to your stay. Majestic are great for this, just be mindful of Christmas delivery.

– Gifts for children should be silent and distracting. If they require batteries, be sure to include these.

– If you’re looking to go large, stick to the classics: My mother was thrilled to receive an obscenely large Highgrove hamper from my husband the morning before he arrived for the weekend and actively swoon when he turned up.

– Cashmere socks from Johnstons of Elgin. If your host doesn’t appreciate these, well, you can’t possibly be blamed for that sort of idiosyncrasy.

And finally, if in doubt, remember the pineapple rule

Once considered hugely exotic, in the 15th Century pineapples were rented out by the day, to households who would display them proudly on tables or mantlepieces. Due to the expense, once guests had outstayed their welcome the host would simply remove the pineapple, neatly avoiding that awkward ‘what time is your train?’ chat.

So there you have it…to err is human, to forgive divine, so this Christmas just be considerate, take a {really} good thank you gift and if in doubt, be sure to leave before the pineapple does.

Wishing you a very merry Christmas stay x

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