It's a bit late in the game, being Christmas Eve, to propose new Christmas traditions. Instead, I'm going to tell you about some traditions involving wine at Christmastime that are practised around the world — international images to dance alongside your visions of sugarplums, to consider for next year, if you're inspired.
Wine, it turns out, is not only a delightful libation to be enjoyed with a tableful of turkey. Many cultures use it to booze up Christmas desserts. In Trinidad and Tobago dried fruit is soaked in cherry wine and sherry for months before being added to Christmas fruitcake. Jamaicans do something similar, soaking fruit in red wine and rum.
Christmas pudding in England began in the 1300s, not as dessert, but as a kind of porridge made from meat, dried fruit, wine and spices. The soupy meal, which was served in the days leading up to Christmas, evolved into what we know today as plum pudding — definitely dessert.
In France, the Yule Log, traditionally a whole tree, is sprinkled with red wine before being lit on Christmas Eve and burned for the twelve days of Christmas.
Wine is also used as a sort of fuel in Germany, where huge tubs of mulled wine — Glühwein — are lit on fire, after a cone of rum-dipped sugar is added to the pot, and the blue flames are best enjoyed with the lights out.
Glühwein is most quintessentially known as a Christmas treat to be sipped while strolling the streets of nighttime Christmas markets, a strong tradition in European countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France.
Christmas markets are beautiful outdoor urban celebrations of winter. They are both family friendly — pretzels and candy for kids, mulled wine for adults — and romantic, with lights and music, craft stalls and winter activities like skating, ice sculptures and parades. They are a joy, a community gathering, a building of positive vibes before people settle into a slower-paced, deeper-dark time of year.
My memories of Glühwein at a Christmas market in Nancy, France, have been complicated by two recent events.
One event, or rather, non-event, was my Christmas shopping experience just the other day. My husband and I were strolling, hand-in-hand, down Spring Garden Road in Halifax. I wish that we were bumping into other bundled couples walking together on the snowy sidewalk. I wish we were hearing more music pouring out of shops, that more shops were open, and lit, and that more restaurants and bars, particularly those along the sometimes-pedestrian Argyle Street, opened their patios and offered hot cider and mulled wine to shoppers. I wish downtown Halifax felt more alive at Christmas.
Later that evening, an ocean away, as Berliners were doing exactly what I was wishing for Haligonians, they suffered a terrible attack on the German city's Christmas market. The news reports since, of Christmas markets around Europe being cancelled or toned down, adds sourness to the heartbreak. This violence does precisely the opposite of what I wish for our urban centres, and this is the awful thing about terrorism: it rips from people their community and their culture.
I have no insight into what it means to go about your Christmas rituals while someone is trying to shred your social fabric. I know, however, that most of us are lucky enough to live relatively free from fear, and that the joys of spending time with family, friends and neighbours around the holidays are ours for the taking.
I promised not to propose new Christmas wine traditions, but I find myself framing a vision of opening this holiday to greater public celebration, to getting out of malls and into the streets, of lighting more candles in more windows and opening more doors and playing more music that flows freely around our ankles as we step together into a new year. Of defying fear with our faith in community.
I will leave you this year with a few European bottles that I have recently discovered and quite enjoy, as a tribute to the continent that inspires us with its wine, and its culture.
Einig-Zenzen 2015 Two Friends ($18 at NSLCs). Riesling-Silvaner blend from Rheinhessen, Germany. A nice-and-easy white, flowers and flint, a touch of sweet and leaves you something to chew on. Great party wine.
Calmel & Joseph 2015 Villa Blanche (on sale for $15 at Bishop's Cellar). Grenache-based Rosé. Apricot and yeast: the Christmas bread of wine. Just delicious, and you can't beat the price.
Le Logis de la Bouchardiere 2015 Chinon ($22.50 at Bishop's Cellar). Tobacco and pepper ("All peppers," said someone at a wine tasting last weekend, "Red, yellow, green and black.") with a squeeze of plum. Classic Cabernet Franc. Excellent to bring to dinner, as the French winemaker no doubt intended.