Midwinter Merriment

As temperatures fall and the trees shed their leaves, we are reminded that yet another year has passed. The winter solstice is upon us and midwinter is here. The blustery winter chill beyond the walls of hearth and home may be bleak, but December is now as it has been through the ages a season of feasting, celebration, and merrymaking. Though the season’s once pagan festivities—from Roman Saturnalia to medieval Scandinavian Yule—have come to hold religious meaning for many in the modern world, even the familiar Christmastide customs of our more recent ancestors met the year’s end with feasting and bacchanalian revelry.

At the NCMA, the anticipation of midwinter merriment finds me again standing admiringly in front of Dutch artist Jan Jansz den Uyl’s 1635 still life ‘Banquet Piece.’ The candles have burnt low, the tablecloth has been pulled askew, and the last of the wine has been drunk, leaving only a few goblets lying prone atop the table. A lemon peel, oyster shells, and bread crumbs are the lone remnants of a great feast which, one might imagine, has just come to an end only to begin again some hours hence. In the background, a lute is propped up against the table, no doubt abandoned there in the early morning hours as the last of the partygoers stumbled off to bed. This exquisite work, despite its subdued monochromatic tones, is one of festive opulence that mirrors near perfectly the exuberance of the historical holiday season.

In den Uyl’s native Holland, Sinterklaas Avond, the midwinter hoornblaazen, and Christmas Day—three festivals all taking place in December—made for a month of near constant celebration and the eating of traditional foods like kerststol, a fruited raisin bread that dates back to the early 15th century. Such celebrations, as exemplified in Dutch painter Anthonie Palamedesz’s ‘Merry Company’ (hanging nearby in the NCMA’s European galleries) united food, dance, and drink in the spirit of Christmastide carousing.

As the ground froze with the advent of winter in early modern Northern Europe, a largely agricultural society celebrated this long awaited period of rest with a multi-day feast. Increased trade from the Far East meant dried fruits and spices were available even as the fields lay fallow. Currants, raisins, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg—these flavors today still define the culinary palate of the holiday. In England, a soused boar’s head marked the apex of Christmastide. In a 15th century English carol of the same name, revelers sing:

The boar’s head in hand bring I,

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.

I pray you, my masters, be merry

Quot estis in convivio 

The boar’s head, as I understand,

Is the rarest dish in all this land,

Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland

Let us servire cantico

Other classic English Christmastide dishes included mince pies, roasted beef, spiced broths, plum pudding, and a traditional medieval pottage called frumenty.

Though the absent owners of the fine brass tabletop vessels in ‘Banquet Piece’ would likely have been comfortably middle class, the Yuletide spirit of celebration has throughout history transcended class distinctions. In Henrick Ter Brugghen’s 1623 painting, ‘Boy with a Wine Glass,’ a modestly attired young Dutchman peers gleefully out from the canvas, tapping his finger on the rim of a more than generous serving of wine. The bacchanalian atmosphere of the season was of course helped along by a hearty tradition of drinking. Mulled wine. Wassail. Eggnog. Cakes soaked in brandy—or tipsy puddings—relied on alcohol to preserve perishable ingredients to last through a hard winter. Ter Brugghen’s boy no doubt needed little prodding: indulgence was the worthy reward for a year of labor and hard work. During Christmastide, as sung in an early 13th century Anglo-Norman carol, all must partake:

Lords, by Christmas and the host

Of this mansion hear my toast!

Drink it well—

Each must drain his cup of wine,

And I the first will toss off mine:

Thus I advise.

Here then I bid you all Wassail,

Cursed be he who will not say Drink, hail!