‘Twas the night before Christmas and all that. The house was filled with that tinsel-buzz that’s equal parts stress and excitement. I could smell the turkey slow-roasting, and the artificial spices of festive air-fresheners plugged into every room. After briefly announcing myself through locked doors where various family members were locked away in last-minute wrapping exile, I stepped proudly into the kitchen. My sister had overseen the preparations for dinner so the kitchen was already a skyline of pots skinned with tinfoil. I staked my claim to a single hob in that metal geography and planted an enormous metal pot on the heat. This was the year I’d decided to contribute to the holiday in my own culinary way.
I filled the pot with cheap cider and grated whole nutmegs into fine dust then I chopped the hard carapaces of cinnamon sticks and measured out the H.R. Giger-esque spices of star anise and cut lemons and orange and skinned them for their greasy rinds then glugged a healthy measure of rum into the whole bubbling concoction. This had been the first year I’d ever tasted mulled cider, and I wanted to bring it to my family. I felt like Micky Mouse appropriating the Sorcerer’s hat in Fantasia, casting in dashes of powder with a magician’s flourish. At the same time, I was steadily breaking a sacred Magician’s law: thee shan’t get high on one’s own supply. My taste-tests became more generous as the evening drew on, and I was verily merry by the time it came to leaving the cider to simmer on its own for a while.
With that endeavour laid to rest, I set out on what has now become a tradition. The Christmas Jumper Christmas Eve Pub Crawl. I met up with some of my family and best friends in a nearby pub. We were all bedecked in novelty woollen attire, some with lights woven into the chest and others with talking belly patches. The drinks flowed freely and we caught up in the raucous crowd of other Christmas revellers.
That year had been an odd one for me. I’d left home to go to University, and though my new neighbourhood wasn’t far away, there never seemed to be time come back for easy activities like these. I was working full-time to support myself, as well as falling in love, and pursuing my dream of writing a Fantasy novel. That was also the year that my family were stunned by some bad news. It was a time where an innocuous evening could be turned upside down by a teary phone call from my brother, or a letter from my dad. I’ve always tried to be there for anyone who needs help and advice, but juggling my professional, academic, and familial obligations overrode my own emotions. I think part of me stayed away on purpose, because my Uni world was untouched by the place where things uncontrollable as magic kept tipping buckets into that overflowing well of trouble.
But everything we’d been through was far away as I stood in that muzzy-warm pub not far from home, surrounded by friends in stupid jumpers with drunk-ruddy faces. We staggered from the tolling bell of last orders to another bar where four beers turned into five. I remember vaguely the plates of mini-sausage rolls and mince pies which we pilfered without purchase, whether they were free or not. It was the sort of night that leaves your throat hoarse with laughter, where the uneasy pavement seems to pour you all the way home.
I told everyone about my mulled cider, and how a close friend from Uni had given me the recipe. They ripped me apart for not simply buying a ready-made spice mix from the shop, but I was determined. It was as if I needed to bring something back with me in order to mix the two halves of my life.
It was gone midnight by the time I got home. The warm kitchen was foggy and when I lifted the lid on my prize I could taste the sweet-spicy flavour of victory. My final job was to strain out the grainy silt which had settled on the bottom of the pan. So, I took a fine strainer and placed it into the sink. Then I took hold of the searing hot pan with both bare hands. That white-hot pain was so immediate that I almost dropped the whole thing but I managed to dart to the sink and tip the cider into the strainer. Except, I’d forgotten to put a container underneath it. The rich amber liquid disappeared impossibly fast into the drain, leaving me with a metal net filled with a sodden mush of orange rinds and cinnamon.
I could only laugh. All my careful preparations amounted to nothing, but it didn’t seem to matter. Maybe it was because I was drunk, or maybe I hadn’t really needed it at all. That story has become something of a staple for me and my family. Every year since, I’ve successfully made them a batch of mulled cider, which they enjoy as much as ripping into me for that very first mistake.
Mulled cider still reminds me not to fear failure. It reminds me of home: of friends in daft jumpers with five or six beers, and my family together, year after year.