In the month of December there are more than 30 religious and secular festivals celebrated by people of all faiths (and those with no organised religion) around the world.
I like that. It stems from a common heritage, marking the solstice, the turning of the seasons, celebrating the significant days of religions, of traditions, and of just being mindful of the passage of time.
In my home, we celebrate with the traditions of Christmas. I was raised a good church-going boy and was even the bible reader if you can believe it, but nowadays I take pleasure in the trappings and ceremonies rather than the observances.
We do puzzles, exchange gifts, laze about in our pyjamas and even have a drink before noon–the sort of thing that’s perfectly acceptable in pyjamas. We also have some food traditions.
First, Christmas eve is always a Peking Duck and champagne, eaten picnic style on the floor in front of the fireplace. It’s a tradition that got started nearly 30 years ago when we got trapped away from our home and decided to do the best we could. It was so good we’ve never considered spending the 24th any other way.
We also watch two movies, in order. The first is the Dr. Seuss classic cartoon, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
It’s uplifting and sweet, and like all the very best stories, it’s all about redemption, how reconnecting with one’s humanity and opening one’s heart can save anyone. The second movie is even more of a redemption story, the one and only true version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim.
I’ve watched this movie once a year since I was old enough to sit upright in front of a television. I can recite along to any line, any narration, and I know the story deep into my heart. But I wouldn’t miss seeing it again for anything in the world: redemption, for a creature so black and cold as Scrooge is a true miracle, and fills me with joy, right to Tiny Tim’s ‘God bless us, every one’.
The 25th we have a big Turkey Sandwich. I like some of the trappings of a turkey dinner (Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce) but am indifferent to the others. For me, it’s all about fresh homemade bread layered with mayo, turkey, cranberry sauce, a pickle, maybe some lettuce, but always a lot of fresh cracked pepper.
Lazing about with a sandwich always within arm’s reach, a crisp glass of Chardonnay at my elbow, I like doing the traditional Christmas puzzle, going for walks, and maybe messing about a bit in my cellar, or fiddling with beer. Or cheese. Or pickles. Or winter herbs. Or whatever hobby has caught my eye recently.
I also take time to reflect on the year. Part of the most ancient of mid-winter celebrations goes back to a time when there was little certainty in the world, when a bad harvest or a terrible storm, or other dangerous events might take people away from us. Part of the gathering around the fire, of feasting together, singing songs, telling tales and playing games was an acknowledgement that some people gathered around the fire might not be there come springtime. It’s a perfect time to take stock of what’s important in your life, and to be mindful of the good things you have, and the good fortune you possess.
However you and your family celebrate, may it be a merry and festive season. Sol Invictus, Happy Hannukah, Yaldā Night and a Merry Christmas to all of my friends
As Winter rolls in my interest in ice-cold beer, well-chilled white wine or slushy blender drinks wanes. To be sure, I’m lucky enough to live in Canada’s Riviera, where it snows only half as much as cities only a few kilometers away and we average much warmer temperatures than most places in Canada. But winters round here have a humid chill that goes straight to your bones.
Our winter cold is hard to explain to someone from Alberta, Saskatchewan or Quebec. They don’t really understand cold. After all, they get huge amounts of snow, and temperatures that get so cold exposed flesh will freeze in only moments, so they think their weather is much sterner. But they experience a dry cold: dress well, in insulated layers and throw on a toque, gloves and good boots and you’re going to be toasty. The same layers will leave you chilled and miserable on the Pacific, as the damp, icy tendrils of the monstrous ocean cold permeate your very flesh, leaving your skin blue and pallid, and your spirit weak and trembling.
It’s the same with boastful winter drivers from much colder climates. “Hah!” they snort, “People from Vancouver can’t drive in the snow.” Then they try it, and in only seconds they realize that it’s not their snow, crisp, dry and crunchy, able to pack down and supply some friction for driving. No, it’s a layer of wet, compacted ice, topped with slush and a layer of water that has as much friction as a teflon pan full of WD40, and off into the ditch they go in a tangled mess of snow, dinged fenders, and hubris.
What to do? Aside from denning until the spring thaw, or lurking in a hot bath for four months, there has to be a way to get warm in the chill of winter. The answer just might be a steaming mug, delicious and warming—a hot drink. Being as I’m a confirmed wine guy, I like a good winter drink based on mulled red wine, but there are others to consider. But where to start? At the beginning, of course.
Hot Drinks in History
Hot Drinks are not a recent innovation. In fact, cold drinks are the newcomer, with hot drinks the relative norm up until the 20th century and the advent of refrigeration technology. With the majority of North America’s immigrants hailing from Europe and Great Britain, they brought with them their recipes for chasing away the chilly, rainy climates at home.
Because central heating is another relative newcomer, every pub used to have a fireplace with a large hearth, where customers could gather and warm themselves. Propped in the fire were a number of poker-like irons, or ‘loggerheads’. These were used to heat up drinks served by the publican. They were literally dipped, red-hot, into the customers’ drink right at the table, not only heating them, but frothing them to a vigorous boil!
(A funny aside: our phrase, ‘coming to loggerheads’ or ‘at loggerheads’ has to do with arguments in pubs. Customers wrangling important issues over a few hot drinks sometimes took advantage of the length and weight of the sturdy irons to make more pointed comments to their fellows. A modern establishment should probably avoid leaving a supply of pokers around!)
Coffee Drinks, Toddies, Nogs, and Mulled Wine
Hot drinks can roughly be divided into coffee drinks, Toddies, Nogs and mulled wine.
Coffee drinks have wide acceptance everywhere, but they’re really just coffee and booze–I can drink that anytime, but don’t find it particularly warming. Maybe it’s because I drink an awful lot of coffee anyway, to keep my central nervous system functioning. Whatever the reason, I rarely want a coffee drink with alcohol in it. Too confusing for my alertness response.
Hot Toddies are mixtures of spices, honey (or sugar) and spirits, warmed with boiling water. The classic is brandy or whiskey with a lemon slice, a cinnamon stick and honey, and is deemed very good for a sore throat. Hot buttered rum is enhanced by a pat of butter, and daring mixologists even use top-shelf tequila with a bit of honey and a lime slice for avant-garde hot drink. Again, however, I don’t associate heating a cocktail with warming up my insides, so not really a fan.
Nog used to refer to a drink made from strong ale and eggs, frothed and heated with a loggerhead. Not many people want an egg in their suds these days, so commonly Egg Nog is a mixture of eggs, rum, cream, sugar and nutmeg, served cold. But it doesn’t have to be: hot Egg Nog is a richly satisfying drink, whether made with brandy or rum, and pre-packaged Egg Nog is available in season, so you don’t have to make your own–although you should, because it’s always better.
A note on the weird-looking twin-handled pot above. It’s for posset, which is an English drink that’s closer to a hot sherry custard than a Nog. Some even had a burnt sugar crust on them, much like a creme brûlée.
Glogg is the Scandinavian word for mulled wine, and is derived from the German word, Glühwein, ‘Glow-Wine’. I usually call my mulled wine by either of these terms because I think they’re more romantic-sounding.
Made from sugar, cinnamon, water, orange and cloves boiled together with wine Glogg is very popular with European ski fans. Not only is it warming and restorative, it also has a moderate alcohol content—a good thing for the active crowd, but a property lost on a winter sloth like me.
Mulled wine can also be punched up a bit, with the substitution of Cointreau for the orange, and/or Port wine for regular red wine. Another winter alternative is mulled cider, or mulled apple juice: brown sugar, cinnamon, orange and rum come together to make a smell reminiscent of hot apple pie, a wonderfully appetising aroma when the frost is on the leaves.
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 bottle of red table wine- Merlot, Cabernet or anything else sturdy and rich. I suggest making your own–check this out.
Mix water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and the juice of the orange together in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the orange peel and the wine, bring back to a boil and serve immediately in pre-heated mugs. This mixture can be kept warm in a crockpot, or on a coffee warmer (covered) for several hours, and can be successfully reheated the next day.
If, like me, you’re a fan of the 1951 Alistar Sim version of A Christmas Carol, you’ll recall when Scrooge tells a suddenly relieved Bob Cratchit that they’ll discuss it ‘over a bowl of smoking Bishop’. Far from a cannibal barbecue, Bishop was one of the code-words for drink used in the 19th century–Dickens knew his drink. The ‘Pope’ recipe used burgundy, ‘Archbishop’ claret (what we call Bordeaux), the ‘Cardinal’ was champagne and Smoking Bishop used port, and was a clove and orange-infused port punch, warmed and mulled with baking spices and another dose of red wine
The recipe takes a few steps, and is suitable for a big gathering. From Punchdrink
750 ml port
750 ml red wine
1 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon allspice, ground
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
20 cloves, whole
Garnish: clove-studded orange slice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Wash and dry oranges. Pierce and stud each orange with five cloves.
Place oranges in a baking dish and roast until lightly browned all over, 60-90 minutes.
Add port, wine, water, sugar and spices to a saucepan, and simmer over low heat.
Slice oranges in half and squeeze juice into the wine and port mixture.
Serve in a punch bowl, and ladle into individual glasses.
Now I’ve got to plan a party where I can try this out on some unsuspecting Scrooges.
Oh dear, it’s started snowing again. Good thing I’ve got a crockpot full of Glühwein to keep me warm. Now where’s my nightshirt and cap?