Christmas Ale

Christmas Ale

Christmas Beer, Yule Ale

In recent years a growing number of small American breweries have marketed special Christmas ales during the holiday season. These companies have revived the ancient northern European tradition of celebrating the midwinter holidays with specially brewed beers.

Yule Ale

A number of experts believe that the pagan Scandinavians celebrated their midwinter Yule festival by brewing and drinking special beers. Norse mythology taught that the god Odin instructed humans in the brewing of alcoholic beverages. The people drank to Odin during Yule. They may have been invoking him either as the patron of ale or as the lord of the dead, since they honored the spirits of the deceased during Yule. Some researchers believe that the ancient Scandinavians also raised their glasses to other gods during the festival, including Frey, the fertility god.

The connection between the Yule season and drinking remained strong as Scandinavia adopted Christianity in the Middle Ages. "Drinking Yule" became a standard phrase referring to the celebration of the holiday (see also Wassail). In Norway medieval law modified the ancient practice of toasting the gods when drinking Yule ale. It stipulated that Christmas beer should be blessed in the name of Christ and Mary for peace and a good harvest. What's more, medieval law required every household to bless and drink Yule beer. Norwegians usually drank their Christmas ale out of special cups, sometimes reserving ancient drinking horns for this purpose.

Seasonal Ales

In Norway the tradition of brewing and blessing special beers for Christmas flourished until the nineteenth century. Tradition dictated that all Christmas baking, slaughtering, and brewing be finished by St. Thomas's Day, December 21. For this reason Norwegian folk tradition dubbed him "St. Thomas the Brewer." In past times Norwegians visited each other on St. Thomas's Day in order to sample one another's Christmas ale.

In Germany beer-makers developed and maintained a tradition of brewing special seasonal ales. Perhaps the most well known were those served for the fall harvest festivals. German beer drinkers still anticipate the arrival of these slightly stronger and darker beers, named Oktoberfest or Märzenbiers, each autumn. German brewers also craft distinctive beers for the Christmas season, as well as for spring and summer.

Church Ales

In the Middle Ages northern Europeans drank quite a lot of beer. Beer's popularity may have sprung in part from the fact that, due to poor sanitary conditions, fermented alcoholic beverages were less likely than water to transmit diseases. The climate in much of northern Europe will not support wine grapes very well, so the people of the north specialized in beer-making.

In medieval times most monasteries brewed their own beer. In fact, monastic brews were considered among the best in medieval Europe. In the late Middle Ages parish churches in England began to ferment beers to be sold to the public on feast days. These events, called church ales, raised money for church supplies, repairs, and improvements. The most important church ale of the year occurred at Whitsuntide (Pentecost and the week that follows). Other important church ales took place at Easter, May Day, Christmas, and various patron saints' days. These party-like events featured the consumption of ample quantities of food and drink, along with dancing, game playing, and other forms of revelry. They died out in most places by the eighteenth century, succumbing to long-standing opposition by those who objected to the boisterous behavior that occurred at these church events.

The northern European preference for celebrating the Christmas season with specially brewed ales emerged from all of the above traditions. Midwinter brews tended to be darker, spicier, and slightly more alcoholic than other beers, which made them a special treat. With the rise of industrial breweries, however, handcrafted seasonal beers all but vanished. In the United States seasonal beers disappeared after World War II. In 1975 a tiny San Francisco firm, the Anchor Brewing Company, reintroduced American beer drinkers to Christmas ale. Their success inspired many other small breweries to follow suit.

Further Reading

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1970. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994. Rhodes, Christine, ed. Encyclopedia of Beer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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