The Friday Symposium: Christmas Edition

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Last year’s Christmas Playlist was such a hit, I decided to make two more. Taking a break from all things classical, here’s a playlist of classic songs that have been jazzed up.

A traditionalist at heart, I think there is nothing better than the very best carols sung by a chorus. The next list includes all of my favorites.

Finally, here’s last year’s list, which traces the history of Christmas music over time.

Thanks to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens will forever be associated with Christmas. And that’s a good thing, because the best thing to drink on Christmas is punch and there is no Punchmaker in history quite like Charles Dickens. Of course, Dickens’ most famous punch was captured in a particularly florid passage in one of his greatest novels:

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens refers to another even more traditional punch, as Scrooge is making amends for his mistreatment of poor Bob Cratchit: We will discuss your affairs this afternoon, over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Unlike the poor rum punch favored by the chronically destitute Mr. Micawber, Scrooge favors Mr. Cratchit with a very upscale wine-based punch, made with roasted oranges studded with cloves, port wine, hot water and sugar.

But these are quite well-known and can be found in many recipe books. After all, Dickens’ penchant for punch extended far beyond his fictional creations. He loved nothing more than entertaining over a steaming bowl of hot punch. Indeed, a sterling silver punch ladle was auctioned at Christie’s some time ago, noting that it had been used by a Mr. Charles Dickens, Esq. at the George and Vulture Tavern, Cornill, London. Sadly, the ladle has been sold on to parts unknown, but the George and Vulture remains, as it was, in the Cornill section of the City of London. Namechecked in The Pickwick Papers, it remains a must-go for anyone seeking to recapture a bit of Victorian London.

But how would Dickens’ make his own punch? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Preserved in a letter to a friend, written in January 1847, is Dickens’ own recipe. And it is a corker–one of the very best drinks you will ever have. Trust me (or at least trust Dickens).

The Charles Dickens Punch

  • 3/4 cup of demerara sugar
  • 3 lemons
  • 2 cups of Navy-strength rum
  • 1.25 cups of VSOP Cognac
  • 5 cups of black tea
  • whole nutmeg

A few notes on the ingredients. While any sugar will do, demerara sugar provides a higher molasses content and a much richer flavor. Worth seeking out, not only for this recipe but for your Old Fashioneds too. It is essential to use Navy-strength rum. While I have made this successfully with non-overproofed rum, the extra alcohol helps considerably in lighting the fire. Yes, you read that correctly. Finally, do not skimp on the Cognac. Hine VSOP is a reasonably priced bottle and you will have plenty left over for several after-dinner snifters. Finally, while any black tea will do, I am very partial to using Mariage Freres’ Marco Polo blend or Harney & Sons Paris blend. Both provide subtle red fruit flavors that add an extra dimension to the punch.

To make the drink, add the sugar and peels of the three lemons to a heat-proof bowl. Rub the lemons and sugar together to release the citrus oils and let sit for 20 minutes. Add rum and cognac. Light on fire (best method is to light a spoonful of rum and add the flaming liquid to the mixture) and let burn for 3 minutes. Extinguish fire with heatproof cover. Remove lemon peels from the punch. Add the juice from the 3 lemons and add the hot tea. Garnish with citrus wheels and grated nutmeg.

The punch can be served hot or cold. I prefer it hot, especially since making the drink can provide your guests with a story and a show.

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