The History of Christmas Beer From Pagans to Pivovars

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but Christmas beer is so delightful…....that was the song going through my head as I walked into my favorite pivovar and caught a glimpse of a beautiful, amber ale being served.

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Christmas beers are prevalent all around Europe and North America and many people may think that they are just a marketing ploy to get more people into pubs and beer into bellies. But, as is often the case, the real story is much more interesting than that.

Christmas beer actually dates back to pre-Christian times when various tribes around Europe (who obviously knew that winter kinda sucks) decided that they needed some cheering up and began celebrating the winter solstice. Throughout history, people have wanted to add a little “festive” cheer to their celebrations and these guys were no different. It was a special occasion so beer was expected to be of a higher percentage since no one had to work on the farm the next day. The harvest was over and a winter warmer was needed to help de-thaw icy fingers and toes (and probably other bits as well!) 

Even as Christianity spread, the Pagan traditions from the winter solstice remained in place and even serve as some of the most endearing symbols of the holiday season. What would Christmas be like without Christmas trees, mistletoe or a Santa Claus racing across the sky? Or Christmas beer?

Of course, as time marched forward, so did the alcohol-based traditions.The Scandinavians celebrated Jolner and started making special beer in November which they called Julöl. The Norwegians liked the idea of a special Christmas brew so much that there were even laws passed called the Gulathing Laws in the early years of the last millennium that required peasants to brew special beer and have a party. After the Vikings invaded the British Isles, the Julöl tradition continued on in the form of Yule ale. Thanks to British brewers, future populations were blessed with one of the holiday season’s finest gifts. 

Finally, the term wassailing, which derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Waes hael!” and I am sure has caused mass confusion for children singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for hundreds of years, stems from the tradition of pouring mulled ale and whatever else you could find into a big punch bowl, drinking it all and then wandering around your town singing…....not unlike the sight of British stag parties in Old Town Square today. 

So next time you are looking for a reason to imbibe in a tasty Christmas beer, just remember that you are prolonging a centuries-old tradition that was designed to make people happy. I'll drink to that!

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