Why you should start planning for Christmas now and what to do first 

Don’t be that person desperately looking through drawers on 22 December for things to re-gift; here’s how to start getting things in order before the most wonderful time of the year

Amanda Brooks getting ready at her Cotswold farmhouse

Owen Gale

Yes, it’s September, there’s still over three months until Christmas and we’ve all heard the words ‘It’s just one day.’ Except actually, it isn’t. Those who love Christmas – and so do it really well – know that Christmas starts on the first Sunday in Advent and finishes with Epiphany. And even that range of dates doesn’t include, for instance, Stir-Up Sunday – the traditional day to make your Christmas pudding – which this year falls on 26 November, or The Spirit of Christmas Fair, which opens at Olympia on 30 October; tickets are available now. Meanwhile, sales of artificial Christmas trees are already surging, and we’ve done an edit of the best.

There’s joy in forethought and anticipation, in booking tickets for The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, in planning the menu for a New Year’s Eve feast, and in ordering monogrammed napkins for the whole family for Christmas Day. Even if you're not quite there yet, and still enjoying the last dregs of summer, there are plenty of others who are raring to go, and we've gathered their advice.

Days (and nights) out

This genuinely needs to be done now – if you leave it much later you’ll find you’re taking your children to the pantomime the night before they go back to school, which is never ideal. Booking is open for The Nutcracker (at the London Coliseum, and at the Royal Opera House) – and if you’ve got young children in your party, know that there’s a matinee at the ROH on Wednesday 20th December – so after schools have broken up - when the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is being danced by the great Lauren Cuthbertson, and another on Friday 22nd December with the glorious partnering of Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae. If you’re coming into London for it, consider going ice-skating at Somerset House that morning (tickets go on sale on the 29th September) or popping into the National Gallery to look at Botticelli’s exquisite Mystic Nativity.

Also open for booking is The Snowman at Sadler’s Wells’ Peacock Theatre, The Witches, a musical version of the Roald Dahl classic, at the National Theatre, A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic, and a host of pantomimes, all across the country. “Seriously, take your children to these things while you can,” says Susan Deliss. “Before you know it, they’ll be teenagers, and refuse to come.” (Though we’d suggest that even the bolshiest teen would be tempted into joining you for the much lauded Cabaretthe set is a marvel, too.)

There’s also Christmas at Kew, Glow Wild at Wakehurst, the Spectacle of Light at Sudely Castle - and visiting Father Christmas, wherever he may be. The Harrods Grotto is often vaunted as the ultimate experience, and tickets are released in mid-November – however your chances of getting in are directly linked to how much you’ve spent in store this year. Other grottos, such as those at Hamley’s and London Zoo, are more democratic. Alternatively, you may prefer to encourage your children to write to Father Christmas – The Polar Post can arrange for rather a magical letter in return.

Party planning

Luke Edward Hall's festive table

Mark Fox

Nicky Haslam reckons that the best Christmas parties, which obviously include his, are planned last minute, and there’s a compelling argument for his approach. But if you are intending to give the party to end all parties you need to start organising it now. Send out save-the-dates if you want your nearest and dearest to attend (as opposed to simply whoever happens to be around), book caterers and catering staff, and don’t forget the Champagne.

But more intimate soirées benefit from a little pre-thought, too. A seasonal table is an opportunity, and there are many means of making it spectacular. I have china that I only use at Christmas – specifically, Royal Copenhagen Star Fluted Christmas, which I have been collecting, piecemeal, since 2010. Emma Bridgewater, Gien, and Mrs. Alice have similarly themed ranges. And if you’re hoping for a floral centrepiece, such as amaryllis, hyancinths or paperwhites, Willow Crossley suggests planting the bulbs in October.

Then there’s the food itself. Susan buys all her dried fruit from a shop in Istanbul, and uses it for her Christmas pudding, her cake, and her mince pies. Remember if you are making your own Christmas cake, it needs time to sit – which is why it’s recommend to make it in October (my children won’t eat it, so it’s pointless. We make a huge red velvet sponge instead, usually on Christmas Eve, and cover it in cream cheese icing, so it at least looks seasonally festive.) If you’ve got a decent sized freezer, it’s also worth either doing a Cook order, or knocking up a couple of fish pies, game pies and a vat of mince, so that you can whip up supper for six (or more) at a moment’s notice – especially useful if you know you’ll have guests coming to stay, and especially if there’s any chance of their getting stuck with you for longer, because of the weather. Finally, there’s the butcher, the cheesemonger, and the supermarket delivery slot to think about.

Present shopping

Presents that are planned are always more appreciated than stuff bought on Amazon last minute; equally, there’s nothing more stressful than trying to fill a stocking with what’s available from the local corner shop (“Gosh Mama, Father Christmas has given me a box of icing sugar and some sunflower oil!”). Brandon Schubert confesses to starting shopping for Christmas in the spring, but with three months to go, you’ve still got a fighting chance of giving people things that they’ll really appreciate. Brandon’s rule is that things should be “humorous, or sentimental, or of high quality,” and he scours auction houses for such things as antique candle sticks or a Chinese snuff box – “stick to things you’d actually want to own yourself and be discerning in your purchases.” He advises keeping such things small: “Very few people would be happy to receive an eight-foot Regency sofa as a surprise” (and it certainly wouldn’t fit in a stocking).

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He also looks for examples of the best of the best – and describes often giving people a pair of his favourite nail clippers, which come from Japan “and are better than anything you can buy locally”. Nina Campbell feels similarly about Santa Maria Novella bath salts. The previously mentioned Spirit of Christmas Fair is awash with lovely ideas, showcasing over 700 independent designers and small businesses. And remember that even something apparently basic, such as a sponge bag, can become more desirable by being monogrammed.

If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to avoid the commercialisation of Christmas, then now is the moment to start on home-made presents. Susan suggests making lavender bags from scraps of pretty fabric, and if you’ve got lavender in your garden, this is the time of year to trim it. Sloes are ripening, perfect for sloe gin (there’s a school of thought that says you can’t pick them ‘til after the first frost. You can get around that by putting them in the freezer overnight). And I often send my godchildren a gingerbread house kit, and suggest that it’s opened before Christmas.

Cards, calendars, and the tree

If you’re having bespoke Christmas cards printed, you will need to get in touch with Mount Street Printers or your stationer of choice soonish, but hold back on posting them; they should never arrive in November. Do get to the post office before the rush, however, for cards (and presents) you are sending abroad. (Unless, of course, you enjoy queueing for days.) I schedule a late November weekday morning for this exact task, and write it in my diary, mainly to make sure that I go. Last year, I failed, and then the post office shut because of staff shortages; my international Christmas cards finally arrived in time for Valentine’s Day.

Advent Calendars are a must if you’ve got little children; start now, and you could make your own. I’ve yet to manage it, and thus order my children traditional German advent calendars, from Germany, usually in mid-November.

As for the tree, unless you are going down the artificial route, that’s one thing you really don’t need to think about until the beginning of December at the earliest; sooner, and it will simply drop all its needles long before the 25th rolls around – which isn’t to say that you can’t start amassing decorations; Rufflemouse’s first bow drop of the season is scheduled for the 1st October (they go fast, so put it in your diary), Issy Granger’s Egyptian glass baubles are available now, and  the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Shop has been open since some time in August.