It all starts innocently enough.  A quick phone call from my former workmates at the local paper, asking a few innocent questions. 

Do I know anyone who gives mid-winter Christmas parties.  Oh, I’ve been doing them myself for more than 20 years, I say.

For future reference, this is a wrong answer.  ‘Haven’t the foggiest’ is the correct response to this leading question.

So, of course, an eager young journo was sent out to talk with me.  But worse was to follow.  A photo.  Surely, I argued, a picture of the roaring fire and a hand – it could be anyone’s – holding a glass of Juleglogg?

No.  I had to sit and pose for the camera, smiling.  It could have been worse.  I had told the eager young journo about the time we’d gone wassailing, which was also a mistake.  Those at the paper then got the bright idea of a photo of me and my family wassailing a fruit tree.  Over my dead body.

It is true that we wassailed.  It was part of my ongoing research into solstice traditions for a story I was doing a few years ago.  There is more to winter solstice than having a huge feed.

What we did was simple.  Invited good friends out, filled them with mulled wine (lulling them into a false sense of security), and then prodded them in the direction of the freezing outdoors to officially wassail.

Most peasants and gardeners from yesteryear did this to ensure a bountiful harvest the following season.  Makes perfect sense.  It is, simply, a toast to the trees.  On this occasion, we marched outside with candles (and a mad cattle dog, also a requirement) and stood around a two-year-old nectarine that looked like it needed an incentive.

This can come in two ways.  The first is nice.  You’re meant to say:  “Here’s to thee, old apple (substitute nectarine) tree, whence thou may’st bud and whence thou may’st blow, and whence thou may’st have apples (nectarines) enow.”  Then comes the bit I like:  “Hats full, caps full, Bushel-barrel sacks full!  And in my pockets full too, Hoorah!”

You then had to bow, and rise heavily as if carrying the weight of the sacks stuffed with fruit.  Then some homebrew is sloshed on the tree.

The other course of action is for bad fruit trees.  Ones that need to lift their act or pull their socks up.  This is more in line with what modern psychologists would call positive punishment.  It involves shouting abuse at the non-performer, which is then beaten with sticks, whips, or pieces of four-by-two.  Kind of along the lines of ‘a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, you more you beat them, the better they are.’

This is, of course, terribly politically unsound and I don’t think at all scientific.  It also caused the editor at the paper a bit of concern.  “Do you think,” she asked, “we could change it to ‘gently tap’ the tree?”

Nooooo, said I, they walloped the stuffing out of it.  And, for the record, we don’t make a habit of wassailing or beating our trees.  We do make a point of planting garlic and shallots at this time of year, and of having a No-holds-barred slap-up meal.  Some years I’ve even got out the Christmas lights.

In short, the winter solstice is a fine time for a party, eating great food (we’re having roast pork this year), and drinking sustaining beverages.  If you want to slather yourself in woad and run outside naked, be my guest.  Me, I’m staying by the fire.


If you haven’t time to wait to soak the raisins, it should be OK, just soak them overnight.


  • 1 litre water
  • 300ml currant juice concentrate
  • 4 pieces cinnamon
  • 4 chunks of preserved ginger
  • 4 tsp whole cloves
  • 4 tsp orange or lemon peel

Bring to the boil, and let stand for about an hour.

Racy raisins:

Cover about 1 cup of raisins with vodka or similar alcohol.  Let brew for two days until truly plump.


Half of the extract and ¾ of a litre of red wine were added together, along with the pickled raisins.  Warm before serving.