Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Post Thanksgiving Credit Crunch Christmas Blues

Thanksgiving has always heralded that start of the holidays in America, and traditionally people are pretty much in the holiday spirit from then on. Similarly, in other countries including Canada and England, the first day of December heralds the start of the festive season. This year however, something seems to be amiss. People worldwide seem to be more cautious about their holiday joy. Everyone is talking about cancelling Christmas parties, or at the very least scaling them down. The stores are packed full of Christmas shoppers as they always are this time of year, but most of them look stressed and worried. So do the shopkeepers. Suddenly we are faced with the unavoidable truth. We have all become so commercial about the holidays that a lot of folks are feeling very blue indeed. We feel our celebrations are threatened because we have to tighten our belts. I’m here to tell you that does not have to be the case.

I’m not about to suggest that you can ignore the credit crunch, or the fact that most of the world seems to be sliding into recession. I can insist however that it does not have to affect your holiday celebrations. In the last few years of plenty, we all got pretty used to holiday extravagance. Where we used to drink wine, champagne became the norm. Luxury ingredients like foie gras, truffles and caviar, once the preserve of only the very rich, moved into the diet of the middle classes. In some cases, the importance of these luxuries overtook the importance of the celebrations. We were all out to impress, whether it was by what we ordered in a restaurant, or what we served when we entertained. Within the big corporates, there was practically a competition as to who could put on the best (ie. most extravagant) Christmas entertainment. We forgot that entertaining and being entertained is all about having fun and connecting with other people. It is not what you eat or drink or where you party. Yet suddenly we all seem to think that because we can’t put on the Ritz like we used to, it isn’t worth bothering to celebrate at all. Well, that is just pure nonsense.

You can have a very glitzy party without breaking the bank. It would be such a shame to abandon entertaining because you feel somehow inadequate, or that you can’t live up to impossible standards. With some rare exceptions, most people just want to have a bit of fun with their friends, colleagues and families during the holidays. I certainly do not go to a party expecting a particular standard of entertainment, nor do I judge what is served or where it is held. I’m pleased to have been invited and happy to have the opportunity to celebrate with others – and I am willing to bet most other people feel the same way. Frankly, if they don’t, do you really want them at your party anyway?

So here are some ideas for entertaining this holiday season that will still keep the glamour in the holidays without breaking the bank. To start with, one of the best kept secrets in London is that good Proscecco (Italian sparkling wine) can, in many cases, taste better than some champagnes. It is not too sweet and has a crisp, dry finish. And at about one third the price of champagne, it’s a great way to keep the sparkle in your entertaining without champagne prices. It’s lovely straight, or you can mix it with a bit of Kir (blackberry liqueur) or Chambord (raspberry liqueur). Just pour a tiny drop in the bottom of a champagne glass and top up with Proscecco. It’s delicious and looks gorgeous. You can also use it in champagne cocktails in place of the real thing. It’s unlikely anyone will even notice.

If you are planning a dinner party, ring the changes and serve comfort food. Not only do people love it, it usually costs a lot less to prepare than other things. Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourginion, even good old stew can make a fabulous main course. I served traditional British sausage and mash at a dinner party recently and everyone raved about how wonderful it was to eat something so comforting and delicious.. I made sure to use excellent quality sausages from a great butcher and served a nice, warming bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside. The evening was a resounding success and it cost a good deal less than my dinner parties normally do. We even had champagne cocktails to start – with Prosecco of course!

Really hard up? Invite friends and family to a pot luck supper. These used to be all the rage when I was growing up and frankly, it’s time we resurrected them. With everyone bringing a dish, the costs to the host are kept to a minimum. Ask folks to bring a bottle as well – nobody minds and they would probably have brought one as a hostess gift anyway! Of course you need to know what everyone is bringing to avoid the horror of twelve salads and no main course, but that’s just easy organisational stuff anyone can sort out. You can even do this with cocktail parties. Ask everyone to bring one kind of cold canapé or some nibbles and a bottle of their favourite drink. As the host you could provide one fabulous hot canapé and lots of soft drinks and juices. Consider making punch if anyone brings a bottle of rum or vodka. Or you could make mulled wine, which is wonderfully warming and goes a long way as it is very strong. My favourite recipe involves studding an oranges with cloves and slicing a further two oranges. Add all the oranges to a large saucepan along with a bottle of gutsy red wine (try Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon), 4 ounces of brandy or Grand Marnier, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a cinnamon stick and a bit of grated nutmeg. Heat gently over very low heat until it is a comfortable drinking temperature – not too hot. Serve in small (heat proof) glasses. This is not just for reasons of economy – it’s very intoxicating!

You can jazz up your house for a big party without breaking the bank as well. Remember paper chains and stringing popcorn for decorations? What about homemade cookie decorations for your tree? All of these are a charmingly retro way of embracing the spirit of the 1950’s and 60’s. They also cost next to nothing and are a great way of involving the kids in the decorating.

So light up a log fire, crack open the Prosecco, mull some wine and invite your friends round for a real celebration. There is absolutely no need for the Post Thanksgiving Credit Crunch Christmas Blues. With a bit of creativity and a spirit of fun, you can entertain just like you always have. Credit crunch or no credit crunch, here’s to a wonderful Holiday Season 2008!

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