It’s Beginning to Look, Taste and Smell a Lot Like Christmas

It came to the surprise of many friends that up until a few weeks ago, I had never before tried eggnog. These folks are of the belief that eggnog is the Christmas drink, a transubstantiation of the holiday season into a beverage. They said, “Wow, really?” and looked at me all wide-eyed with an expression that said, “What, have you been living under a rock or something?”

No, I haven’t been…or at least not any more than any other person in the Christmas-celebrating populace. That population is global and far from homogenous, so to expect uniformity—even just on the topic of traditional Christmas beverages—would be myopic.

Still, the similarities that do occur among the recipes and propensities of this amalgamated group of humans are fascinating. These common ingredients, flavors and aromas largely correlate with what is available and comforting during the cooler-to-freezing-cold winter season*. When asked what things smell and taste “Christmas-y,” I doubt I would be alone in thinking of such seasonal elements as dried fruits, citrus zest, cocoa, ginger, mint, cinnamon, clove and other spices, herbs and sweet additions. These kinds of flavors and aromas are represented in a large number of holiday treats: from the variety of spices, bitters and fruits stewed into the multitude of mulled wine and cider concoctions like Scandinavian glögg and English wassail; to nuts and dried berries embedded into cakes; all the way down to the cinnamon and gingerbread scented candles. There’s a reason people like to get fresh pine trees or put out holly or cinnamon-scented pine cone potpourri; they make the whole house smell like Christmas.

The delicious aromas that float throughout my grandma’s house on la nochebuena and incite the holiday spirit in me are those of handmade tamales baking in the oven and ponche navideño simmering on the stove. This ponche navideño, or Christmas punch, is my family’s warm n’ cozy, homemade holiday beverage of choice. A typical Mexican-style ponche is made with soaked and peeled tamarind and tejocote/manzanita combined with a number of dried and chopped fruits, crushed cloves and cinnamon and sugar in their rawest stick and cane forms. Ponche’s sweet, fruity scent is an aromatic transubstantiation of Christmas for my family and me.

In all probability due to their connected histories in addition to ingredient accessibility, much of the holiday beverages of Christmas-celebrating people around the world do have much in common (besides the oft added brandy, rum or some other booze). Anglo eggnog and Mexican ponche navideño have common Puerto Rican, Dominican and Venezuelan cousins in coquito, ponche de ron and ponche crema. As with mulled wine, there is an abundance of Christmas punch-type recipes throughout these places that often include more localized ingredients. For instance, Mexico’s next door neighbor Guatemala has a quite different version of ponche—also called “caliente” since it’s served hot—which includes more tropical climate fruits like pineapple and coconut. Filipino tsokolate, West African hot chocolate, Spanish chocolate a la taza and my other favorite champurrado all have common Mayan roots and are drunk at Christmastime.

Champurrado is chocolate atole, a hot, masa-based beverage that can come in other flavors like cinnamon and guava. Though growing up I loved the comforting bouquet of ponche being brewed and filling the house with Christmasness, my childish palette preferred the chocolaty sweetness of atole. It’s like hot chocolate but much thicker and more soothing; it tastes like Christmas after mass to me. Now that I’m older and much less finicky and more open to complex foods, ponche’s orchestra of flavors is more my style. I also emerged a bit from under my own little Christmas rock when I was finally introduced to eggnog. To my tongue’s mind, it tasted like a melted milkshake engaged (but not quite married) to a White Russian, but I dug it and will likely be enjoying it for Christmases to come.

So this Christmas, winter solstice, start of the 14th b’ak’tun cycle, whether you’re filthy rich or broke, traditional or radical: raise a glass of champagne, frizzante, hot spiced wine, ‘nog, punch, chocolate— whatever—and be merry and thankful for family, friends, food and the miracles of life…and indoor heating.

Every holiday drink mentioned in this article has been provided with a link to a recipe. We encourage you to try something new this winter!

*This is true, at least for those of us who live in the hemisphere where Christmas occurs during the coldest season.