The ultimate Christmas countdown

Annabel Else
Christmas tree with fairy lights outside country c
Christmas tree with fairy lights outside country c

Time can slip away from you before any big event, none more so than Christmas. So if you often find the last few days before Christmas stressful and want to get ahead with some of the tasks in plenty of time, consult our handy countdown. Don't try to tackle it all at once, but take one thing at at a time, in a logical order.

Check last posting dates for cards and parcels here. They're often earlier than you think - especially if you're posting abroad. Buy stamps, cards, wrapping paper, tape etc.

Saturday 20 November
If you need a party frock, fleecy onesie, black tie, Christmas jumper or fancy dress for the festive season, decide now before everyone else buys the one you've set your heart on. Keep an eye open for bargains on Black Friday (25th November).

Sunday 21 November
Stir-up Sunday: the traditional day for making Christmas puddings. Some people also like to make cake on this day - which gives both of them time to mature (and be fed brandy) before Christmas. There are lots more Christmas baking recipes and ideas here. If you prefer your homemade pastry to the shop-bought version, make a batch or two and freeze it.

Wednesday 22 November
Christmas is a great time to sell your unwanted items on auction sites such as EBay but think about timings carefully. Make sure your listings end in plenty of time for the items to reach their destinations. Also - you may not want to be posting parcels in the last two weeks before Christmas so think about listing your items in November rather than December.

Thursday 23 November
Getting cards and gifts sorted out before you start food shopping really helps make the festive season less stressful. If you're buying presents, cards, decorations or food online, check when items are due to be delivered and check the returns policy. Keep an eye open for bargains on Black Friday (25 November). If you're thinking about regifting, these tips and guidelines might help.

Friday 24 November
Black Friday: you might be able to buy Christmas presents and find something to wear at a huge discount.

Saturday 25 November
Decide whether you're going to throw a Christmas party or New Year's Eve party. There are plenty of ideas for drinks, cocktails and party food here.

Sunday 26 November
If you're planning to make any presents, decorations or cards, try to get it done before December starts.

Thursday 30 December
Make a food plan: Work out how many guests you will have on the main days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Go through your recipes and plan your meals based on how many guests you're expecting. These links should help:
Christmas menus: Festive food for everyone
Christmas cooking for one or two
Festive cocktails, hot drinks and party food

Friday 1 December
Back to the plan: Once you've decided what you want to cook and eat, you may realise that you have too much work. There are two things that can help: 1) Decide which things are better bought from a shop and 2) delegate tasks to family and friends. Start writing your food shopping list and group the items depending on which shop you're buying them from.

Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 December
A good weekend for buying presents and writing cards. Getting this out of the way before things get busy in the kitchen will make things much less stressful later in the month. You may want to decorate your home and tree this weekend too.

Monday 4 December
Refine your plan: Concentrate on large/bulky/heavy items that need to be ordered, either from supermarkets or from local suppliers. If a family member or friend is bringing the turkey, for example, check and confirm the size with them now. If you're ordering from a supermarket, check the deadlines for ordering - they're all different (Tesco's is December 14th, for example and Asda's is the 15th). Bear in mind that M&S delivers your order to a store of your choice, not your home.

Tuesday 5 December
Do you have all the equipment you're going to need? For example, is the roasting pan going to be big enough? Do you need extra-wide cooking foil? Do you have plenty of cling film to cover leftovers? A new pair of thick oven gloves and some new tea towels might be handy. Do you have a kitchen fire extinguisher or fire blanket?

Wednesday 6 December
Think about drinks and plan what to buy. Look for deals. Include wine, bubbles, spirits and mixers. Is there something for kids, teetotallers and drivers to drink? Do you need to make or buy extra ice cubes? Don't forget tea, coffee, milk and hot chocolate. Bear in mind that milk can be frozen, as can butter and eggs (crack into a freezer bag and label it with the number of eggs it contains).

Thursday 7 December
Make sure there's plenty of room in the fridge and freezer. Clear some storage space before doing a big food shop. If you're planning to store things in the garage or attic, make sure there's plenty of space.

Friday 8 December
A good time to finish off any present-buying or wrapping and card-writing and sending.

Saturday 9 December
Today is the last posting date for Australia, New Zealand and Greece. Check last posting dates for cards and parcels here. You may want to decorate your home and tree this weekend if not already done.

Sunday 10 December
Have you thought about what you can cook ahead? Gravy for example, can be prepared a couple of weeks before Christmas Day and frozen. Check your plan and see what still needs to be bought.

Monday 11 December
A good time to buy cheeses. In particular, anything that you need to ripen - such as Brie or Camembert.

Tuesday 12 December
If you're having guests to stay, think about where they're going to sleep. Do you have enough clean sheets, pillowcases, towels etc?

Wednesday 13 December
This is a top tip from Mary Berry - think about making and freezing something that you'll be able to defrost and eat on Christmas Eve. You need something you can just put in the oven while you do other tasks. The following all freeze well:
Fish pie
Poacher's pie or a festive game pie
Shepherd's pie
Meat lasagne or creamy seafood lasagne

Thursday 14 December
Today is the last posting date for Canada, Sweden, Finland and USA. Check last posting dates for cards and parcels here.

Friday 15 December
Achilles' Heel day: What's the one thing that you run out of every Christmas? Wrapping paper? Lemons? Sticky tape? Batteries? Tonic water? Ice? Loo roll? Whatever that thing is, buy some today and put it in a safe place (but not so safe that you won't be able to find it!).

Saturday 16 December
Revisit your plan and make shopping lists of what you still need to buy. If you're thinking of having sprouts and fancy a new way of doing them, there are plenty of ideas here.

Today is the last posting date for Belgium, France, Ireland and Luxembourg. Check last posting dates for cards and parcels here.

Sunday 17 December
There's still plenty of time to think about what you can cook ahead - for example, gravy. Remind yourself how to cook great roast potatoes.

Monday 18 December
Check your shopping lists; now is a good time to buy food that won't go out of date very quickly. For example: ham, pate, crackers, biscuits, citrus fruits, vegetables and smoked salmon.

Tuesday 19 December
If you're planning to cook turkey, Gordon Ramsay has a foolproof way of making sure your bird doesn't turn out dry. It involves preparation the night before, so it's worth watching this video in advance. Make sure you keep the wrapping from the turkey as it should have information on the bird's weight (and possibly defrosting and cooking times). And if carving the bird is going to be your job, find out the best way to do it here.

Wednesday 20 December
A good day to start on your Christmas ham. And if you're nervous about the best way to carve a turkey, this will show you how.

22 December
If you have a frozen turkey (or other large pieces of meat) then bear in mind that it can take days to defrost properly - so calculate when you need to take it out of the freezer. For example, a 3.5kg (7lb 11oz) turkey will take 35 hours to defrost in the fridge and about 3 hours to cook in an oven preheated to 180ºC (350ºF, Gas Mark 4). Allow more time if you're opening the oven a lot. Check the safety information below:
Defrosting times
Turkey cooking times
More food safety advice and tips

23 December
Buy any last-minute fresh things you need - such as cream, fruit and herbs for example.

If you have anything in the freezer that you'll need on Christmas Day (gravy, sauce, vegetables etc), be sure to take it out in plenty of time to defrost.

24 December

Prepare and stuff the turkey

Peel the vegetables: spuds and carrots can be kept in water, but not green veg such as sprouts (they can be prepared and kept in a freezer bag in the fridge).

Stuffing can be made and kept in the fridge overnight. Pigs in blankets can be prepared and left covered in the fridge ready to be put in the oven tomorrow.

Roast potatoes can be parboiled and fluffed-up then covered in foil and left somewhere cool overnight, ready for tomorrow.

Make yourself a list of what to do tomorrow based on the cooking times of your main dishes. Bear in mind that a whole cooked turkey can be left to rest under foil and clean tea towels for at least an hour and still be hot when carved. This means that you can cook it well in advance of the serving time and have space in the oven for other dishes while it's resting.

Monday 25 December
As you're likely to have a turkey or other dish in the oven for most of the morning, breakfast needs to be very simple, and involve leaving the oven untouched. Here are two options:

A) Serve breakfast buffet-style and let everyone help themselves. Put the toaster in the middle of the dining table to make space in the kitchen, and put out plates of smoked salmon, ham, cheese, tomato, slices of melon, and rolls or croissants, so that guests can eat as much or as little as they want.
B) Delegate the task of cooking breakfast to a willing friend or relative. Make it clear you need the kitchen back in plenty of time to get on with the main meal of the day.

Then pour yourself a glass of something nice and relax in the knowledge that it's all under control.

More festive food ideas:
Christmas menus: Festive food for everyone
Christmas cooking for one or two
Festive cocktails, hot drinks and party food
How to have a Scandinavian-style Christmas
What to do with a supermarket lobster

Make Christmas easier on yourself:
Nine magic Christmas hacks
How to decode a whisky label
Take the stress out of Christmas
The easy way to carve a turkey like an expert
Christmas baking and dessert recipes

Need to know the best way to roast a potato? Look no further...