This Friday will usher in the longest night of the year, what is known as the Winter Solstice. This is when the sun appears at its lowest altitude above the earth in the Northern Hemisphere, usually on December 21st or 22nd. This is also the first day of winter.
Since ancient times, the winter solstice was viewed as last chance to feast and celebrate before the long, cold winter months took hold. During those dark days, it was a struggle to find enough to eat, a place to stay warm, a way just to survive until the warm winds of spring brought a rebirth of life.
With the shorter days, began the final feasts and celebrations. This was the time when wines, made during the year, were ready to drink. They were offered up with toasts and cheers for a better year ahead.
The Winter Solstice is still associated with special cold weather holidays and festivals that revolve around gatherings and celebrations. These include Christmas, Hanukkah, Hogmanay, St. Lucia Day, Ziemassvētkiand, and Yule. And each holiday, and region, offers its own preferred celebrational beverage for keeping the grip of cold weather, and low spirits at bay.
In Scandinavia, the Yule is celebrated from December 21st into January. The Yule log may be set on fire on the 21st and can burn for up to two weeks. The Norse believed that each spark of the Yule log represented a new calf or pig that would be born during the coming year – adding prosperity to the community, and a reason to celebrate.
While contemplating the Yule log, Scandinavians sipped Aquavit. This 15th century drink is distilled from grain or potatoes, and flavored with caraway or dill. It is thought to aid in the digestion of rich holiday foods.
In Southern England, wassail is the main drink of choice. Wassail (meaning good health) is a mulled cider made from apples, with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg added, and served hot. The tradition of wassailing involves singing and drinking to the health of the apple trees to ensure a good apple crop the next year.
In Germany, a mulled wine from the 1400’s, known as gluhwein, is popular around the holidays. Gluhwein means glow wine. Mulled wine is usually made with red wine that has spices such as cinnamon, cloves, anise added, along with sugar, and should be served hot.
Swedish/Danish glogg is another winter drink made from red wine. Sugar is added along with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and bitter orange. The spices are allowed to steep in the wine in order to intensify the flavors. Then the wine is reheated when served.
In Scotland, they enjoy a Hot Toddy during the Winter Solstice. Whiskey, boiling water, and sugar or honey are mixed with cinnamon, cloves, or lemon to make the drink. It was once thought that the hot drink and spices helped relieve the symptoms of a cold or flu. Regardless, they feel that a hot toddy can raise your spirits, and make the cold weather easier to bear.
In the U.S., colonists celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Twelfth Night with Hot Buttered Rum. Rum was one of the cheapest liquors available in the colonies. With a molasses flavor that could be enhanced with butter and spices, hot buttered rum became the drink of choice during the cold, snowy winter months and continues to be a cold weather favorite.
The British once enjoyed a hot drink of milk curdled with wine, known as a posset. A drink from Medieval times, it was usually spiced with ginger and anise. Once cooled, the curds were gathered and the whey discarded before adding the spices and more wine. The drink fell out of favor during the 19th century.
A mostly forgotten American drink is known as the Tom and Jerry. This drink was created by British journalist, Pierce Egar during the 1820’s. Egar publicized the drink as a way to boost sales of his book, Life in London: Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. It is a variation of eggnog made with brandy or rum, flavored with vanilla, and served in a bowl. During the mid-twentieth century, special Tom and Jerry bowls and cups were used. Tom and Jerry is a very regional drink, made mainly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Midwest.
And what would the holidays be without a cup of Eggnog? Crafted from milk, cream, sugar, and whipped eggs, liquor, such as brandy, rum or bourbon, is added and nutmeg sprinkled on top. Served cold and topped with whipped cream, eggnog is the quintessential holiday drink. At one time, in England, eggnog was reserved for the well to do, for they were the only ones who could afford dairy products. In America, where cows were plentiful, eggnog was a common holiday celebration drink, dating back to the late 18th century.
So Friday evening, build a fire and gather your friends together to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Pour a traditional drink and toast to the longest night of the year. Celebrate the season - and Enjoy!