Historical Holiday Cheer

In the colonial-era, the Christmas season lasted into January and concluded on Twelfth Night, a festive evening to mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and celebrated much like our New Year’s Eve is today.  While the entire period featured frequent banquets and balls with much food and spirits, Twelfth Night was especially known for its revelry.

Just as we do today, many colonial Americans got into the holiday ‘spirit’ with a glass of something special and warming on Twelfth Night.  Special drinks called for distinctive mugs, glasses, and containers that were both functional and designed to impress your party guests.  In these containers, early Americans enjoyed familiar festive beverages like eggnog, hot chocolate, hot toddies, and punch.  At the same time, some of their holiday drinks are now a thing of the past or perhaps only enjoyed by those imbibers with an appreciation for history.

Many of these holiday beverages were created out of a desire to preserve the taste of fresh fruits harvested in the summer and fall so they could be enjoyed during the winter months.  Cherry ‘Bounce’ is a great example of this – in addition to being fun to say!  Easy to make, cherry bounce was started in the early summer when the fruit is ripe.  Fresh cherries (traditionally of the sour variety) were placed in bottles and topped off with brandy then stored for as long as you could stand to wait.  Leaving the fruit to infuse as long as possible increased the flavor and lent a lovely red color to the brandy.  The decanted off-flavored brandy was mixed with sugar and spices.  Martha Washington possessed a recipe for cherry bounce that included cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg and George Washington was said to have loved it so much that he took some in a canteen with him on a trip over the Allegheny Mountains in 1784.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Copper wheel engraved wine glass.

Syllabub is another colonial beverage that has been forgotten.  Originating in England, this odd-sounding half-dessert, half-cocktail, was created by combining spirts such as wine, sherry, ale or cider with fresh milk – preferably so fresh that it had just come out of the cow and was still warm!  In fact, some recipes stated that a maid should milk the cow directly into a pan of your chosen spirit.  Unfortunately, this technique probably also resulted in some ‘barn yard’ material ending up in the concoction.  Sugar, spices and possibly citrus were then added.  While there are many versions of syllabubs, it often involved a frothy mixture of whipped egg whites, curd or cream that can be spooned off and eaten while you drink the liquid whey that separates beneath.  Served in a conical glass and sometimes displayed on a pyramid-shaped dessert tray with colorful jellies, syllabub made for a very festive holiday drink.

A Copper Wheel engraved dessert/fortified wine glass used to serve syllabub.

While many people may not have heard of syllabub and cherry bounce, wassail is a term that most are familiar with even if they’re not entirely sure what it is.  Actually, wassail was both a beverage and an activity.  Similar to today’s mulled ciders and wine, wassail was often served from a punch bowl passed around from person to person in an act of sharing and celebration.  The old Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” describes the act of going from house to house singing and wishing good cheer while also sipping the punch-like drink composed of hot wine or ale mixed with spices, apples and sometimes topped with bread or toast.  But before you condemn our ancestors for drinking odd things, just think what future generations might think of what we consume today.  And perhaps try a colonial holiday beverage or two this Twelfth Night and evoke the spirit of holidays past!

Hand-blown mug for hot beverages such as wassail.

You can experience a dramatic theater presentation depicting a Twelfth Night celebration (minus the alcohol) at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, January 3 or Sunday, January 4.  Reservations are required and can be made by calling 540-370-0732 x24 or emailing hayes@gwffoundation.org.  Visit the events page on http://www.kenmore.org for more information!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist, Ceramics and Glass Specialist

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