America enjoys many deeply entrenched Christmastime traditions. Exchanging gifts. Trimming the tree. Baking festive cookies. Waging an interminable blood feud against our most-hated adversaries.
In an era when pundits and pols deploy militaristic wordplay to smear “Happy Holidays” pagans, Starbucks cups instigate public outcries, and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sparks an impassioned debate over the concept of consent, some of us long for a time when wintertime fighting was relegated to Toys “R” Us. It’s easier than ever to forget that Christmas, regardless of your belief system, is supposed to be a time of sincere mirth. As we turn to drink to temporarily numb the noise, maybe we can glean a few things from how America toasted this suddenly touchy season a good 65 years ago.
First published in 1951, The Holiday Drink Book—yes, that’s the original title, Bill—documents a much more idyllic Christmas: “a toast to tippling & oldtime cheer, with Yuletide spirits throughout the year.” From the New York-based Peter Pauper Press, which has been producing specialty books since 1928, it’s a mixture of cocktail recipes and light cultural commentary, cut with pull-quote aphorisms and odd little illustrations—mainly humans, roosters and elephants in various states of inebriation. Available today through rare book sellers (I got mine from Thomas Posey, a bartender turned book dealer in Philadelphia), original copies go for around $30 to $50 online—a modest investment for a true relic.
The belief that everyday life during the Golden Age was pure and free of stressors is revisionist fluff, but flipping through this pocket guide reveals evidence of relaxed standards where the language of alcohol is concerned. For starters, the first page basically accuses Santa Claus of drinking on the job. “Some of our most lovable characters have been fond of the bottle,” writes the author, who is never named. “And even good old Saint Nick himself is depicted with red cheeks and cherry nose that somehow are more suggestive of the warmth within than of the cold without.”
The wink-and-nod assertion that Kris Kringle’s rosy glow is a result of bottles stashed in the glove box of his sleigh sets the cheeky voice for the remainder of the book’s 61 pages, broken down by drink category. The directives leading each chapter are either hilariously vague (“Do not stir or shake a cocktail too little or too long”) or purposefully contradictory (preceding a passage on how to serve wine: “[We] drink wine for pleasure—so break any rule if the wine gives you greater pleasure drunk in some other way”).
This why-not-have-another worldview is most succinctly summarized in a bit of verse originating with the 17th-century English thinker Henry Aldrich, appearing on the back cover alongside a drawing of a plump, tipsy man in a waistcoat doffing his top hat to a hitching post he thinks is a lady:
If all be true as we do think
There are five reasons why we drink:
Good wine, a Friend, or being Dry
Or lest one should be by and by—
Or any other reason why!
In more prosaic terms: In the year of our lord 1951, you didn’t need an excuse to get rip-roaring drunk. Despite one mild reference to moderation in the intro, the book takes an aggressive the-more-the-merrier stance. It can’t help but come off dated considering today’s liability-conscious drinking climate, which requires you to punch in your date of birth just to view a spirits company’s website.
Recipes, thusly, are the real meat of the book, and this is where the proceedings get legitimately Christmassy. Though there are instructions for all-purpose cocktails like the Old-Fashioned, Mint Julep and Zombie (aka “the king of all drinks”), the “Party Punch Bowls” and “Hot Toddies & Mulled Wines” sections put in the real seasonal work.
Simple directions for party-batched Eggnog and mulled wine join single-serving instructions for Hot Buttered Rum and the Tom and Jerry. The book really shows its age, however, in its sections on the Wassail and the Farmer’s Bishop, an elaborate cider-and-brandy-based beverage associated with the Bishop family of hot spiced drinks.
The latter recipe, in particular, sums up the book’s vintage appeal as we creep toward 2017. Consisting of oven-baked oranges and apple brandy that’s set aflame before being extinguished by steaming hot, hard spiced cider, it’s a strong, bone-warming drink complete with visual elements that make for “a dramatic and effective” party presentation. “A fireplace has warmth & cheer,” goes the caption for the accompanying drawing, “but Farmer’s Bishop, atmosphere!”
Antiquated as The Holiday Drink Book may be, it’s got a few things to teach us about how Christmas-themed drinking, and convivial consumption in general, ought to go. Take a cue from Page 44, where a trio of crimson-cheeked men wielding foaming flagons forms a teetering inverted pyramid atop a barrel of cheer: “Pray let us drink at any time, no matter what the reason—High spirit needn’t be confined to any date or season.”
Peel of 1/2 lemon, cut into curls
Peel of 1/2 orange, cut into curls
6 lumps sugar
1 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
3 cups boiling water
2 quarters [quarts], Sherry, Marsala or Burgundy
Pour boiling water over the fruit peel, sugar, and spices and simmer for 10 minutes. Place in a punch bowl. Add the wine, which has been heated to the boiling point but not allowed to boil. In merrie Old England, a poker was heated in the fire-place, and thrust into the bowl. Makes 20 servings, 4 ounces each.
Olde Yule Wassail
A modification of the traditional recipe, but still retaining the ancient name of ONE YARD OF FLANNEL.
Heat 1 quart ale almost to boiling point. Into it stir some grated nutmeg, powdered ginger and peel of one lemon. While ale is heating, beat up 3 eggs with 4 ounces of moistened white sugar.
Put hot ale into beaten sugar and eggs in one pitcher, and into another put 1 quart of rum or brandy. Turn ingredients from one pitcher into the other until mixture is smooth, then pour into holly-wreathed Wassail Bowl.
Use hot pitchers and a pre-heated Wassail Bowl. Be sure the drink is hot!
The Farmer’s Bishop makes a dramatic and effective treat on a Christmas Eve or other festive winter occasion.
Select 6 oranges with nice peels. Stick each with 8 cloves, and bake them whole in a slow oven for 1 hour. Place them in a heated punch bowl, and prick well with a fork. Pour over them 1 quart slightly heated apple brandy, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar. Set fire to the brandy, letting it burn for a few seconds only, then extinguish the flame by pouring over it 1/2 gallon almost boiling cider, reserving 1/2 cup of the cider. Into this 1/2 cup stir beforehand the following: 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Add this mixture to the hot prepared punchbowl with more sugar if you want. Serve at once. Reheat in a chafing dish, or over the stove, as needed for refills. Makes 24 servings, 4 ounces each.