We've all been there. It's 10.45pm and your feet are killing you. So is your back and, judging by the quantity of wine that's still flowing, so will your head be in the morning.
Parties are supposed to be fun, but sometimes, usually around 1 December, those invitations start to seem more like a cause for complaint, competitive griping even, than an excuse to have fun.
Each year, the pool of people with whom we celebrate gets bigger. Once it was family. Then family and friends. Now we celebrate anyone and everyone: colleagues, clients, neighbours, acquaintances, fellow gym-goers, even occasionally buying tickets to celebrate with complete strangers, donning black tie to knock back cocktails with people we've never met.
And then we moan: at the office the next day, when our hangovers kick in; at home in the evening, when we can't face the thought of yet another night out. We even moan at parties when the small talk falters. By Christmas Day, we're all gasping for a nice cup of tea and a sit down. And then there's New Year's Eve... It's enough to drive anyone back under the duvet.
I know this better than most – as a gossip columnist, party-going is part of the job description. And at Christmas time, the social schedule is at its most hectic. It's all too easy to fill your diary with engagements, start out feeling fresh, and then gradually get more run-down as the month goes by, ending up with goodness-knows-what sickness by 25 December. But it doesn't have to be that way: with the right attention to your health, you should be able to get through the month ailment-free, and maybe even manage to stave off that hangover until Boxing Day.
What to wear
Often the first thought on receiving an invitation, but rarely for the right reasons. Party gear can do so much – it can make you look slimmer, more attractive, but it can also wreak all kinds of havoc with your health. Unsurprisingly, high heels are the worst offenders. They shift all your weight to your toes, squashing them together to cause blisters and corns. And they accentuate the curve of your spine, causing long-term lower- back problems.
Not that we're going to stop wearing them. Nothing turns an outfit from casual to cocktail like stilettos. So the answer, it seems, is mitigation. "Changing your choice of shoes can make a difference," says the British Osteopathic Association's Danny Williams. "The higher they are, the worse they are, so go for medium heels every now and then. And it's worth sitting down regularly, or just moving around to change position."
Most experts recommend slipping off your shoes when you get the chance. I tend to kick mine off in the taxi for the duration of the journey, taking advantage of the privacy for a break.
Handbags come a close second on the health-offenders register, and it's no wonder: rushing from work to soirée can mean lugging a good deal of stuff along for the ride. "Big handbags are the worst for the spinal damage they cause," says Williams. "Across-the-body bags are much better, but best of all is a small, hand-held bag."
If it's not possible to leave that tote behind, take a smaller bag or clutch along too. That way you can stow your heavy bag somewhere, and just carry the essentials.
Make sure you eat right
Trying to eat sensibly can be a nightmare come party season. It's never a good idea to drink on an empty stomach, and you know you should have a snack first – but then, who has the time to rustle up a salad when they're doing the mad dash from desk to cupboard to cocktails?
Most of us end up arriving with our stomach grumbling, eyes frantically searching for a tray of canapés. And that, says Professor Chris Seal of the Human Nutrition Research Centre, is where the trouble starts. "If you begin your night on an empty stomach, you'll end up drinking more to fill the gap, and pile canapés into your mouth. They're often pastry-based and very high in fat, or fried, which is just as bad."
If eating something beforehand isn't an option, the next best thing is good old-fashioned willpower. Not all canapés are off-limits, so resist the urge to pick at whatever is going past, and try to snack on healthier options. Asparagus, sushi or seared tuna, for example, are fine, as are crudités – but be careful what you dip them into. Stick to houmous or salsa rather than any of the creamier options on offer.
What to drink
It's no fun being the only sober person in the room. Not only are you constantly stuck in lopsided conversations with the More Intoxicated but, worse, you have to fend off "polite" enquiries as to why you're not drinking, or whether you'd like a top-up. Having a drink in your hand puts others at ease and, in moderation, there's nothing wrong with that – after all, it's Christmas, not Lent.
"The big danger is the volume you drink," says Seal. "Increasingly, the trend is to have large, 250ml glasses, which means that if you have one glass of wine, you're having almost a third of a bottle. So count your units carefully."
If you are drinking, he says, heed your mother's advice and have plenty of water, too. "The main problem with what we drink at this time of year is that it dehydrates you. So keep hydrated by alternating alcohol with water."
It's also worth taking into account what you're drinking. According to Andrew Irving, author of Little Books' How to Cure a Hangover, it's the congeners in alcohol – the chemicals responsible for taste and colour – that determine the severity of hangover. So that old wives' tale that red wine is worse in the morning than white holds true.
"The simple rule is that the paler the drink, the less likely it is to carry a load of congeners. Vodka and gin are less hangover-producing than whisky and brandy. Similarly, the darker the wine, the more likely there is to be a hangover if drunk in excess. Burgundy must be treated with more care than claret."
And, whatever you drink, don't neglect your body the next day. Just because it's the festive season, it doesn't mean that you should abandon a healthy lifestyle completely. If you maintain a balanced diet, you won't need to turn to miracle cures – most of which, according to Seal, don't actually work. Try to maintain an exercise routine, too. You may not feel like it, but if you have a reasonably high muscle-to-fat ratio, you'll metabolise residual alcohol faster.
Mind your back
Almost as hazardous as high heels, bad posture can have disastrous effects when you're spending night after night standing around at parties. Williams warns that stooping, or leaning against a wall can compromise the structure of the body. "Standing incorrectly puts unnecessary pressure on vulnerable parts. Being bent over can even inhibit breathing and digestion, both important functions at this time of year."
If you get the chance to sit down, take it – but beware of seats that are too low, like the low-slung couches common in bars and nightclubs. "They force you to sit at an uncomfortable angle, which puts strain on your back," says Williams. "It's even worse when you're drinking alcohol and are a bit dehydrated. Your discs will be under a lot of pressure."
Don't overdo it
Finally, learn to clock-watch. December brings with it such a volume of social occasions and so many consecutive nights out, that maintaining your stamina becomes key. It's important to pace yourself, not just your drinks, in order to avoid exhaustion. Without enough early nights, you're sure to end up feeling run-down and yearning for a cup of cocoa by Christmas.
So if you know that one night of the week is going to be especially late, make an effort to leave other events early enough to get a decent night's sleep.
Don't be afraid to call time on partying – everyone else is going to just as many dos, so one night off is unlikely to make much difference in the grand scheme of the festive season.