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Travel Dad: Christmas cracked

After ditching turkey duty and whisking his family off to a hotel, Mr & Mrs Smith founder James Lohan realises he’s been doing Christmas wrong for decades…

Travel Dad: Christmas cracked
James Lohan. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Who doesn’t love Christmas? I mean, apart from people with kids, people with in-laws, people who hate cooking, people without dishwashers and people who’ve already seen Elf more than five times. We all have this ideal of the perfect family Christmas — all our loved ones gathered together around a beautifully set farmhouse table, laughing, sharing stories, tucking into a crisp-skinned, moist-fleshed turkey, and basking in the loving warmth of the holiday season — the thing is, none of us manage to actually achieve it.

I like Christmas — or, at least, I like the thought of it. But when it comes to the reality — feeding and entertaining upwards of 15 people for three days — it’s not so much a relaxing winter wonderland as a professional hospitality marathon. All our family has had a stab at festive hosting over the past few years, and all of us have had our triumphs and disasters, but the one constant is that whoever is on catering duty has ended up exhausted, stressed and with a seriously depleted wine stash. Christmas hardly lives up to its ‘holiday of the year’ reputation.

In recent years, it’s generally been my wife and I who’ve drawn the short, tinsel-wrapped straw, mainly by virtue of the fact that our house can just about squeeze everyone in. Not in anything resembling luxury, mind; our table can’t really fit the ever-growing collection of boyfriends and girlfriends that come attached to various family members; and I’m beginning to wonder how many long-lost uncles it’s possible for a single family to have. We usually find ourselves drafting in garden furniture for seating, and I’ve had to create a ‘who’s bringing what’ spreadsheet just to ensure we have enough cutlery and that there’s a Christmas cake to plonk on the table.

The cycle usually begins in March, when my ever-thoughtful mother will contact me with a helpful reminder that, in case I’d thought it was a one-off, Christmas is also scheduled for this year and we should really start thinking about it now. This will be followed up in April, May, June and onwards, until I finally capitulate some time in October and start the planning bauble rolling.

‘Maybe this year we should consider all hiring a big house in the countryside,’ someone will inevitably pipe up on the email back-n-forth, before being shot down by relations horrified at the prospect of trying to do Christmas in a strange house where the mattresses may be lumpy, the kitchen utensils may not be stored in illogical places, and — worst of all — ‘the kids won’t have all their things’. (This is especially disturbing for the grandparents, who are well aware that The Kids Without Their Things is basically the same as Bruce Banner without his lithium.)

The fact that this festive rigmarole has been playing out pretty much identically for a decade or more makes it all the more astonishing that I — Mr Solutions-Orientated and, coincidentally, the founder of a boutique-hotel-booking company — never had the idea to ship the clan off to a hotel for Christmas until last year.

I don’t know why it took so long — perhaps out-sourcing the festive labours felt somehow like ‘cheating’, as though Christmas is only Christmas if you spend half the day staring anxiously at a trayful of stubbornly non-crisping potatoes. But, after engineering a family-wide agreement that we should try transplanting our Christmas to a Cotswolds hotel, I’m not sure I’ll ever return to the old ways again.

As far as propositions go, it’s a no-brainer: hotels are professionally equipped to look after anyone from two to 82; they have babysitters on tap and bedrooms to retreat to whenever you need to escape the melee. And generally, those bedrooms are better than the ones in your house (as far as Mr & Mrs Smith is concerned, you should never pay for a bedroom less inspiring than your own), and the catering team is inevitably more adept at manhandling a turkey than me and my 1982 Delia Smith cookbook (no offence, Delia — I’m the weak link in this partnership).

As we disgorge into the hotel, two by two, like animals into the Ark, we’re met with the scent of open fires and oven-fresh mince pies, and have hotel-made sloe gin pressed into our hands. We feel instantly at home, and find ourselves getting along famously — it’s that ideal vision of Christmas realised within 10 minutes of arrival. The other families who’ve twigged the festive hotel secret have brought along their kids, and soon the entire contingent of juniors is swapping stories of what Father Christmas will bring them, while the grown-ups sit back and relish the fact that — for the first time ever — we actually have a chance to talk to one another without one of us rushing off at a crucial point in the conversation to attend to a ferociously bleeping oven.

Here, we’re not enslaved by the wine-stained military-grade checklist of everything that needs to be done from 6am to 1pm; the grandparents can nip off for naps whenever they please — heck, so can we all, as we tag-team childcare under the gentle haze of Champagne cocktails, or make use of the kids’ club — which ours actually want to go to.

During our stay, the other guests become our extended family, and we’re reassured to see that every gathering is as dysfunctional as our own; some, thrillingly, even more so. (My father is beyond relieved to find one gentleman with three exes in attendance, as opposed to his paltry two.)

We find time for Christmas Eve carol singing and the all-important Boxing Day stroll, bookending a turkey lunch that’s served on time and with everything — everything — cooked as it should be. We really do live a sort of Dickensian Christmas dream — only with no mess to clear up and trips to the spa and dips in the pool thrown in.

Watching a sea of children and wrapping paper in the hotel lounge on Christmas morning, with kids excitedly showing and sharing their new toys before a roaring fire, I realised that Christmas really is best left to the professionals. I had this year’s booked by Boxing Day. The only downside is that my mother hasn’t had much reason to call me for the past eight months…


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