December is a month of endings and beginnings. The winter solstice on the 21st marks the end of fall and the beginning of winter. Daylight ceases to shorten and begins to lengthen. Traditionally, as the deep cold of winter settled every year, people across physical and temporal distances took comfort in dark beer and good company. The solstice – a day that ultimately represented endings and beginnings – inspired great revelry throughout western antiquity, laying the foundation for many present-day celebrations. And, of course, beer was central to a lot of these traditions. After all, the history of western civilization is quite entwined with the history of beer. Let’s take a look at a few of these occasions that might inspire you to create some new traditions of your own.
This Roman festival was a toast to the god Saturn and his connection to agriculture and time. He is commonly depicted carrying a sickle much like the Father Time figure of today. The Saturnalia party would last about seven days with revelers feasting and drinking heroic quantities of beer. The social order was reversed and the masters would become the slaves for this time. The feasting and merriment was a way to combat the gloom and darkness represented by Saturn, by celebrating the return of light to the days.
Norsemen equated the solstice with Yuletide. Vikings would partake of “Jul” to toast their Norse gods with a strong, malty brew. For the Vikings, winter was an excellent time to brew and enjoy beer because they were typically home from the summers’ raids and battles. To further solidify the beer-based tradition, Norway’s king created a law that each household must brew a beer for the Jule (yule) season and recognize the holiday as long as the brew lasted. This Jule ale was considered a special brew because it was stronger and perceived as better than ale created during the rest of the year.
The tradition of brewing and enjoying beer at Christmas spread through Europe and inspired the tradition of wassailing. This tradition has etymological roots that reach back to the Norse, as the term wassail comes from the Old Norse word vesheil which means “be in good health.” It seems likely that these roots are more than just linguistic. Wassail is the term for both the drink and the act of caroling door to door. As the singers graced each doorstep with their beautiful tunes, each carried a cup, and each household was expected to serve the carolers wassail. The stronger the ale, the better.
The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery
We folks at Duck-Rabbit developed our own solstice-time traditions. As it states on our home page, “When we brew, we’re happy and we dance. During fermentation, we sing softly to the yeast.” Annually during this season, a brewer gets the chance to create a recipe or brew a beer that is not part of the regular line up. This year, Will Pardon chose to make an oatmeal oyster stout now known as Paul’s Working Holiday. While we are typically as busy as elves making the beer, we also like to enjoy it with delicious food, as part of the delicious food, and by itself in all of its splendor. During this year’s solstice season – marking the end of our first decade and the beginning of our second – we are celebrating specifically with Porter, Baltic Porter, Paul’s Working Holiday, the 10th Anniversary Barrel-Aged Anarchy, and of course, the Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout along with the rest of our core beers.
Winter celebrations and beer have been linked throughout the ages, and we here at Duck-Rabbit are happy to continue linking beer with festive jollity. The long nights and cold weather force us inside, and current traditions bring us together for our own kind of merriment. Take a moment to toast these traditions, both new and ancient.